What Business Expects from Higher Education

The College Board Review
No. 164, Forum Issue 1992

Graduates seeking white-collar jobs face a radically different future. Here’s one sketch of what they need to know to survive.

by Paul A. Dillon

BEFORE discussing the job skills that I think college graduates will need to successfully compete in the professional and managerial work force, both now and in the future, it is important to say a few words about the shape of the “white-collar” work force in the nineties and in the century to come. The first point about the white-collar work force is that there will probably be less of it, by recent historical standards. With the exception of certain high-growth fields, such as health care, the recent downsizing by businesses throughout the nation, and particularly in the financial services industry in Chicago and in the Midwest, has produced hundreds of thousands of unemployed, highly educated and highly experienced former executives. Even more important, the jobs which these managers and professionals formerly occupied are unlikely to return in the foreseeable future, if ever-even in the face of an improved economy. Once businesses have learned to do the same amount of work with less, to be leaner and meaner with improved profitability, it is unlikely that they will ever again hire large numbers of managers to bloat their payrolls. While it is extremely difficult and painful to say, some of these laid-off former managers and professionals may never work again, at least not in capacities as meaningful as they had before.

But, all of them will be competing with your graduates for jobsany jobs. The implications for new college graduates attempting to enter the managerial work force in the future are staggering. With fewer professional and managerial jobs available, and with a ravenous demand for even the most basic entry-level job with a minimum entrylevel salary, the job prospects for new college graduates in most businesses are bleak, to say the least. Only the best and brightest graduates can expect good entry-level jobs, with good entry-level salaries, in most fields. The rest can expect to be significantly underemployed, at best, with limited opportunities to make good use of their newly acquired skills.

Even for those graduates lucky enough to obtain entry-level white-collar jobs, companies will offer fewer management trainee programs to support, mold, and coach new graduates into managerial productivity. New hires are going to have to contribute to corporate profitability almost immediately, making a significant positive impact on the bottom line. The “learning curve,” so to speak, will be straight up. The pressure will be enormous. But, I’ve saved the best for last. The white-collar work force of the future will be terribly fluid and exceedingly insecure. New college graduates entering the work force, and even current experienced managers and professionals on all rungs of the corporate ladder, are going to have to learn how to take care of themselves, their jobs, and their economic futures.

Self-reliance, coupled with a goodly amount of “chutzpah,” will be necessary to survive in the corporate environment of the future. If there ever was a bond between employer and employee (and some doubt if there ever was), it certainly no longer exists. New graduates, and every other nineties-era manager or professional, who think that they are going to hide in the bowels of some bank or corporation for twenty, thirty, or forty years and emerge with a gold watch are dreaming. New graduates, and every other nineties-era manager or professional, who believe top management when it says “what’s good for the company is good for you” are fooling themselves. If you doubt this, just look at how top management took care of itself in the proxy statements of companies that were sold during the leveraged buy out craze of the eighties, while jettisoning their employees into oblivion when companies either had to be broken up and sold to pare down their huge debt, or collapsed into bankruptcy.

No. New graduates, and every other nineties-era manager or professional, who want to survive in the white-collar work force of the future are going to have to be very visible with a lot of professional contacts. They will have to be smarter, tougher, more self-reliant, exceedingly cynical, a great deal more fiscally prudent in their personal lives, willing to take dramatic (sometimes terrifying) short-term risks for long-term employment gains, and, most important, develop transferable skills that can be used in a wide range of occupations in this uncertain, fluid workplace environment. To survive in the white-collar work force, nineties-era professionals are going to have to develop transferable skills that can be used in a range of occupations.

Skills for Survival

It is on this last point that I would like to dwell a bit and give you my ideas of what skills I think graduates will need to successfully compete in this new corporate age. Some of these skills, one could argue, are not the province of academic institutions to teach. That argument is specious. Your graduates will need to obtain them somehow, from someone or someplace, at sometime in their working lives.

The first set of skills that your students will need should enable them to do something productive in a business environment. It will be very difficult in the future for the traditional liberal arts student to secure a good job in business without elective course work in economics, statistics, accounting, advanced English composition, public speaking, and most important, computer science. Numbers are the language of business and computers are how these numbers are articulated. It is not good enough now to be computer literate; effective workers in business must be computer proficient. As I previously noted, new employees are going to have to contribute to profitability almost immediately and are going to have to enter a company with at least a sound, basic, academic knowledge of how business works. They are going to have to have a good answer to the prospective employer’s questions: What can you do? What can you offer me that is going to add value to my company? Why will I be better off tomorrow than I am today if I hire you? No B.S. in response, please!

Your graduates entering the white-collar work force are going to have to learn how to communicate effectively, both verbally and via the written word. Good writing skills and good public speaking skills are crucial to business success. My ideas, here, do not stem from any particular ideological need to preserve the arts of rhetoric or composition in our modern-day society, although that is, certainly, a worthy goal in and of itself. I am merely succumbing to pure pragmatism.

While most executives won’t admit it, there is a fair amount of bluffing in the business world. And, people who can write well and speak well can more easily fool other people about what they really know. While I don’t mean to imply that you can succeed in the business world by being a fraud (frauds are eventually found out), it has always amazed me to see people whom I am certain only really know 50 percent or, at most, 75 percent, of what they are talking about, totally convince other people that they absolutely, positively have complete command of the subject they are discussing. Moreover, these people typically possess the unique ability to express terribly complex business situations in exceedingly simple terms that are readily understandable by the average person in business. These are the communication skills that will be necessary to rise up the corporate ladder of success in the future.

Since it is likely that your graduates will change careers several times in their working lives, your students will need a good, sound liberal arts education at the undergraduate level, with some basic business electives thrown in, as I previously mentioned. Specific concentration in business courses should be reserved for the graduate level, if graduate education is pursued later to sharpen business skills. Business is becoming more international; and, the U.S. work force is becoming more pluralistic all the time. Executives will need a broad understanding of other cultures, other languages, history, science, and the arts, if they are to successfully navigate a rapidly changing future business environment. Even more important, executives are going to have to learn how to both identify and solve complex business problems based upon masses of information and data related to new and emerging areas that the business world has never before in history had to consider-the environment, health care crises such as AIDS, and light speed changes in the world political scene. The solutions of the future just might not be based on precedents from the past. Successful business thinking will involve making good value judgments based on plausible alternatives, with some modicum of good, old-fashioned risk taking thrown in.

Your graduates will need exceptional “people” skills, if they want to be successful in business in the nineties. From my experience, most business problems stem from “people” problems, that is, a lack of understanding of—and/or inability to deal with-how and why other people think, act, and are motivated. A sense of self and a keen insight into the mysteries of human nature will be of critical importance in any future business activity. We can all cite numerous examples of how a lack of understanding of other people was the root cause for the failure of some program or project. The real mystery to me is why people don’t understand the absolute necessity for good human relations skills in almost any human endeavor and then develop them early in their lives.

While it may sound like fluff, students entering the professional and managerial work force must take responsibility for developing a great number of professional contacts (the current colloquialism is “networking”), in addition to obtaining and maintaining high professional visibility. Students should learn that a hunger for success, coupled with style and image, are as critical as substance to business success. After a certain point in your career, competence is assumed. From that point on, ambition, drive, style, image, politics, and luck (some would say divine providence) seem to be the prime determinants of success in the business world.

Finally, and most important, I think, young people entering the work force today should learn how to be leaders, if they want to be successful in business. They must learn how to take gut-wrenching, stomach-turning, nail-biting, sleep-tossing, real responsibility for their actions. They must learn how to stand up and bear the shoulder-crushing responsibility for other people’s livelihoods in a business setting. They must learn how to form a vision. They must learn how to motivate. They must learn how to inspire.

Notice, I said young people should learn leadership, rather than management. You manage things-but you lead people. And good, competent leadership, I have found, is lacking not only in business but in most human endeavors.

Hope for the Future

I fully realize that the world that I have painted of the future of white-collar employment and, in my opinion, the skills that will be necessary to successfully compete in it, is bleak, hostile, demanding, and somewhat discouraging. But, it is what I firmly believe is coming. It has pained me to write this. I fervently pray for a kinder and gentler professional workplace environment for both your students and my children, who will soon enter into it. But, I don’t see it happening. Competitive pressures, both domestic and international, just won’t permit it.

I am not without hope, however. As both educators and parents we have the challenge of molding young people to not only survive but be successful in the demanding white-collar workplace environment of the future. I believe that we are up to the task.

Paul A. Dillon is managing director, Corporate Services, Checkers, Simon & Rosner, an accounting and business consulting firm in Chicago. His article is adapted from an address he delivered at the College Board’s Midwestern Regional meeting in February.

Used with the permission of the College Board Review