I am not an academic, let alone a sociologist (although I am the son of a sociology professor who taught nurses how to deal with death and dying and occasionally prevailed upon sleepy department chairs to allow her to teach courses on parapsychology, i.e., the scientific study of the paranormal). In fact, I imagine most academics agree with their colleague who commented last year on a piece I had written for Inside Higher Ed that “What you imagine to be your jaunty style is just the snowballing record of your ignorance.”
So I was grateful to Michelle Van Noy, a real academic and sociologist at Rutgers -- and one who deigns to talk to me -- for recommending Randall Collins’s seminal 1979 book The Credential Society, which was reissued earlier this year by Columbia University Press with new forewords by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Tressie McMillan Cottom and Stanford University’s Mitchell Stevens.
Collins wrote the book in 1979, and while he makes a number of groundbreaking points about how credentials promote occupational closure and social stratification, in an attempt to demonstrate that America’s educational system does nothing to promote socioeconomic mobility, his underlying thesis is that education is entirely about status and not at all about skill development.
The Credential Society is the work of an education nihilist, right from the K-12 get-go: “The content of public school education has consisted especially of middle-class culture rather than academic skills” and “schools have relatively little effect on learning, except insofar as they mold those disciplined cultural styles already prominent among the higher social classes.”
His position on work-force development is more nuanced: once a technological plateau is reached (i.e., once all workers have basic skills), further formal education doesn’t make any difference in productivity, and in fact may be counterproductive because “better educated employees are more likely to be dissatisfied with jobs and to change jobs more often than less educated persons.” Fundamentally, “job skill cannot be assumed to be related to educational levels in a simple linear fashion … beyond certain [educational] plateaus the relationships may well be reversed.”
Reading Collins, it’s crystal clear to me that this is a work that was only possible before the digital revolution. In an industrial age, it may have been true -- as Collins writes -- that “the ability requirements of many jobs in modern society are not stringent” and that “extremely high intellect is not considered necessary nor even desirable, and specialized or technical skills are considered to be of minor importance.”
Collins comes to this conclusion from a study of 109 developmentally challenged children, most of whom worked as laborers, none of whom were knowledge workers: “Occupational success was not related to intelligence differences within this group. Rather, the more successful workers were those who had the middle-class patterns of dress, speech and personal behavior.”
But it’s no longer true in a digital era. Educated workers are not only more productive in a digital environment, but without the requisite degrees (and increasingly skills), they won’t be hired and may well be invisible to hiring managers by dint of applicant-tracking system software.
Collins also dates himself in writing that “vocational training seems to be derived primarily from work experience rather than from formal school training.” This was a fair statement when employers actually invested in entry-level training. But that’s rare in the digital economy. Many employers now insist that candidates have already done the job, even for entry-level jobs.
A recent survey found that 61 percent of all full-time jobs seeking entry-level employees require at least three years of experience. Observing this phenomenon, Peter Cappelli of Wharton notes that American employers have developed a global reputation for wanting the perfectly qualified candidate delivered on a silver spoon -- or they simply won’t hire.
According to Cappelli, “Employers are demanding more of job candidates than ever before. They want prospective workers to be able to fill a role right away, without any training or ramp-up time. To get a job, you have to have that job already.” Cappelli calls this the “Home Depot view of the hiring process,” where filling a job vacancy is “akin to replacing a part in a washing machine.” The store either has the part, or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, the employer waits. This shift by employers is an understandable reaction to the increasing cost of bad hires, and higher churn, particularly for entry-level employees. Experts estimate that the cost of a bad hire now exceeds six months of that employee’s salary.
In his preface to the new 2019 edition, Collins says credential inflation does provide a “potential solution to a profound problem now becoming apparent in the advanced economies of the world.” The dystopian challenge: artificial intelligence will eliminate all nonmanual jobs. “In 20 or 30 years, capitalist societies may collapse because business organizations will have eliminated most paid workers, thus leaving no one who can afford to buy capitalist products.”
Here’s the punch line: “Credential inflation helps mitigate this problem by keeping more people out of the labor force.” Collins explains. “In places like the United States where the welfare state is ideologically unpopular, the mythology of education [and credentials] supports a hidden welfare state.”
Collins matches his 1979 education nihilism with 2019 future-of-work nihilism. But here’s what we know for sure in 2019 about the future of work: it’s going to involve interacting with digital technology. Most of that interaction today is via screen. Voice interaction is now here and rising. And in time, we’ll be interacting via embedded or wireless devices for which human thoughts are intelligible. Whatever the interface, the future of work will require not only understanding how to utilize these various platforms, and to take advantage of their functionality, but an ability to interpret the data, and the problem solving, critical thinking and creative skills to decide what to do next.
One promising new digital technology credential developed by a D.C.-area partnership between employers like Ernst & Young, Northrup Grumman and Capital One, and universities like George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth Universities, promises graduates who can:
- Demonstrate how data can be used to reduce uncertainty and risk in decision making.
- Show knowledge of probability and standard statistical distributions.
- Use a computer application to manage large amounts of information.
- Visualize data using displays including tables, dashboards, graphs, maps and trees.
- Identify data situations vulnerable to insider threats.
To my nonacademic ears, this doesn’t sound like the Shakespearean credentials that prompted Collins’s hand-waving 40 years ago (“Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing”).
Rather than tilting at windmills, a more relevant and pressing question for academics like Collins, Cottom and Stevens is whether the educational approaches currently prized by America’s colleges and universities are sufficient for developing the necessary cognitive skills for interacting productively with future digital technologies, or whether new pedagogies, curricula, programs and pathways will be required. Whoever gets this right will be have a massive market for their credentials. And that will be a Credential Society worth writing about.