Rather than wade into the long running argument about how much of the value of education is in acquired skills versus the ability to signal ability or aptitude, let’s take a moment to appreciate the majesty of signaling in the wild. I hold the view that education has value far in excess of simply demonstrating to others that you can execute four years of tasks in a structured environment sufficient to warrant a degree. Make no mistake, however, I also firmly believe the labor market is constantly on the lookout for signals of high productivity employees that are entirely orthogonal to education and often values them more than most forms of broad training. To be honest, part of the reason I believe that education must have some training value is that the wage premium remains enormous, but the signal itself is actually kinda, well, generic. Sure, different degrees have different signals (i.e. did you dodge calculus?), but the fact remains that you really don’t learn all that much about a person from their simply having a degree.
If they worked the griddle at a Waffle House for a year? Now that’s a signal.
I’ll tell you straight up – I’d take a faculty job candidate with a PhD from State U and 12 months of Waffle House on their CV over someone who got an Ivy League PhD straight out of undergrad. And not just accept, I’d push hard for them. That person has seen. some. ahem, stuff, and they came out the other side a person that then went and finished their doctorate? That’s the stuff co-authoring dreams are built on.
There are plenty of attributes that certain lines of work leverage. Grit. Attention to detail. Follow through. Resilience. Calm. Creativity. Cleverness. Reliability. I could go on for a 100 more at least, but at some point it just becomes a thesaurus for “awesome person who can accomplish tasks and handle challenges that are hard to define in advance”. And those kinds of things are difficult to ascertain without a) observing them first hand over an extended period of time, or b) those attributes being vouched for by someone whom you trust implicitly, neither of which are options for the typically hiring process, unless you’re “hiring” a 10-time All Star that was once coached by the person who took a knife for you in 5th period study hall 20 years ago.
There are some occupations and life experiences, however, like an extended run paying your bills scattering and smothering the world’s best hash browns, that do manage to signal those incredibly valuable, but hard to credibly observe attributes with at least some degree of reliability. Here’s a few that come to my mind:
- Restaurant. Back of House and Front of House are very different signals. Bonus points for BOH in a short order or quick serve setting, you’re basically getting a soldier without a specialization in violence. Any generic FOH experience, short of selling ice cream at a posh beach, is at least useful for stepping out of social bubbles.
- Military, especially if they fulfilled their duty, but chose to change careers. This is a person who not only follows through, but can make independent decisions. Immune to sunk cost fallacies.
- Flight Attendant. They are emotionally bulletproof.
- Hotel. Problem solvers.
- Peace Corps or missionary work. Committed and make good on promises.
- Delivery (i.e. UPS or FedEx). Big tasks don’t overwhelm them.
- Independent Record Label/Zine distributor/Band promoter Utterly unfazed by high risk endeavors, get lots of intrinsic value out of their own labor
Before I wrap up, let me tack on a few specific summer jobs that have signal value to me. I’ve never met anyone who worked construction as a summer job who wasn’t tireless and reliable. Everyone I ever knew who worked at a movie theatre is funny and interesting, though usually a bit introverted. Kids with paper routes grow up to be independent adults. Screenwriters and novelists who never got a foot in the door make good industry creatives. Anyone who’s done an open mic comedy night more than once is probably a good teacher.
What about you? Are there jobs on a resume that let you know something important about a person that you couldn’t learn any other way?