Signalling Hustle

Katya Grace, via Robin Hanson, with a puzzler, in respect of why teenagers and their parents appear to under-invest in researching  jobs to inform the choice of education:

I’ve been meaning to remark how surprised I am that not even the students themselves seem interested in researching such things, or to even think of it.

Robin demurs and goes meta, which is probably a more interesting discussion. But I’ll try picking up the gauntlet, anyway.

Is education is about learning skills, which are then used in a job? If so, school is about limiting an infinite universe of careers by incurring the opportunity cost of choosing a path. Big call.

I’d argue that this is a terrible way of thinking of this problem.

Here are my points:

1. Jobs do not use any skills learned in school; school is about signaling ability to learn on the job. Doctors, like sheet metal workers, are useless without experience. Teachers are the exception that proves the rule here.

2. Education is a careerist’s red herring because Networking is a far more potent skill for getting a job.

3. Jobs are interchangeable. The intra-industry variance in quality of workplace (ie culture) is an order of magnitude larger than the variance of the inter-industry average. The only relevant inter-industry variable is status, which is externally determined anyway.

Some more thoughts:

Most kids already know what they’re good at by the time they’re ready to make the college decision (ie poetry vs calculus). Kids should apply to the programs that send the clearest signal of #1 above.

There’s a trade off between school choice, major choice and subsequent academic success. Is it better to graduate top of your engineering class at a small, regional college or fail out of Harvard?

As an employer myself, what I’m looking for is someone who has intelligence and an innate hunger to succeed. You can’t teach hunger. You’re either eating enough or you’re not.

I’m not saying that diamonds can’t be found in the rough of poor combinations of school/major/grades. Quite the contrary, kids embarrassed by bad outcomes like that can be the hungriest, most fantastically successful people in the world.

The problem is that the resume-> interview selection process gives an employer virtually zero ability to really assess a person’s suitability. For entry-level jobs and the unproven who vie for them, any effective screening process would just be too costly. The only alternative is to use social networks to evaluate talent.

Another way of saying this is that the best way to get a job is to make it socially very difficult for the decision maker not to hire you. That’s what the verb networking is all about.

So, if parents really want to help their kids, they should work on building their own network and becoming more successful themselves. The psyche of the median 17-year-old is a volatile mix of hormones, rebellion and laziness. Getting a successful parent to lean on his/her network for a job is the path of least resistance. Easier than working hard in school, at least.

But, as a parent expanding your network is really really hard; that’s why salesmen make so much money.

It’s much easier to put pressure on your kids to help themselves.

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