How can students intelligently plan careers amid so many conflicting signals?

After reading so much about education and jobs for my work, it's good for me to step back and read about the issue through the eyes of an outsider -- a potential student, a parent, a laid-off worker.

That's what I did with this one that appeared in Sunday's Star Tribune.

After reading it, I'm not surprised that the public is confused about what education and training to get.

It's not that the article's reporting or writing is flawed. It's that so many seemingly conflicting dynamics are at play in the job market. Readers must be getting mixed signals everywhere they turn: market data, experts, anecdotal examples.

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Just what are anxious students and parents to do?

Let's start with the big message that I (and I'm sure many others) have been hearing for a while:

  • Those who have college degrees do much better in a recession than those without;

  • Those with advanced degrees make more money than those who don't; and

  • Those in the financial, technical and business sectors do better than average, as do those in health care.

Then I read in the Strib:

Denise Sjoberg, who holds an MBA was laid off in 2009. When the 49-year-old mother of three teenagers couldn't find a job in her profession, she opened a licensed day-care center out of her home in Eagan. Today, she makes $13,000 less per year .....

We later learn she was in the IT industry.

Laid off? In IT? And locked out of her profession despite having an MBA, a degree that should open up numerous fields of business? You'd think that combo would have kept her safe.

Then there's Wendy Vyskocil, a medical transcriptionist in that once-hot health-care field ...

... who once made $45,000 a year but now makes $28,000 after pay cuts.

Jeannie Burke, laid off after 26 years from her carpet/upholstery installation job at Bayliner boat plant ...

... took advantage of a state program to go to at Minnesota West Community College to become a medical assistant "in the supposedly recession-proof health care industry." Despite the training, she still hasn't seen a medical assistant's job opening in her rural corner of the state.

(She did get a lower-paying job, however, in the insurance department of a medical center.)

So much for hot sectors. How can one plan for either education or longer-term training when the market changes so quickly, turning hot fields into dead ends?

Now let's talk degrees. It's the useful math-and-science degrees that are being recommended now that liberal arts and humanities are being derided as irrelevant.

Take Kate-Madonna Hindes, 30, who lost her job in risk management at Target Corp, for example. The Strib writes:

Her theology degree wasn't much help.


Didn't Hindes did get that Target job with a theology degree to begin with?

And why is her degree a factor at this point? The woman is 30. Doesn't a degree becomes fairly unimportant after a worker has some experience under the belt?

The article continues:

Then, Hindes went to work for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development helping others who had lost jobs. Finally, she rebooted her professional career as a social media consultant.

Hindes ends up saying:

"What I need is a healthy bank account and transferable skills."

Interesting statement. Considering her radical job changes, isn't that what Hindes has -- good smarts and education that can be widely adapted through a little specific job training? What's the problem here?

Now comes Tom Stinson, Minnesota's state economist, who tells the Star Tribune:

Young adults who majored in the wrong subject in college and spent the recession unemployed or underemployed could spend the rest of their lives trying to catch up economically. ... "They'll have to think about resetting their skills," he said.

Note that wrong-subject-in-college message again.

So just what are the right subjects? This article says pharmacology and agricultural economics are hot. This one says chemistry and agriculture are losers.

Anyone care to explain to the average student or parent what the differences are between pharmacology and chemistry? Or why agriculture is a stinker, but agricultural economics is a winner?

Do you think the average undergrad choosing a major could tell the difference -- or care? After all, when I was in school, classmates talked not about specific jobs, but about fields: "I want to work in health care / computers / agriculture." A degree was just a means to get them into that field, and there were multiple ways in.

Finally, what should students think about shelling out for higher education?

We all, of course, have read that more education equals better job prospects and pay.

And yet Strib readers learned Sunday:

In fact, the highest rate of job growth has been among lower-income positions.

I'd understand if the average high-school senior and parent saw higher ed a pointless investment in this economy.

That said, the article does warn:

People in the middle class with college degrees are doing better than those with high school diplomas. But neither education nor previous career experience guarantees success in the today's jobs market.

Fair enough. Unfortunately, they don't seem to guarantee the bare minimum of a job, either.

So I'm starting to wonder:

  • Are we coming to a point where the usefulness of advice about professions and degrees is limited at best?

  • How can we expect an efficient distribution of labor in the labor market when information is limited, and market signals are mixed?

  • Should we deride a liberal arts education -- and demand more publicly funded technical education -- when those highly focused technical skills are often the least adaptable in a changing economy?

Still figuring this out. Feel free to chime in.