Cultural Defects Undermine College Degrees

While unemployment continues to wreak havoc on the nation’s productivity and morale, it has already reached calamitous levels in certain demographics. The unemployment rate among black youths is nearly 25%, the highest of any other demographic in the country. Even with similar educational levels, blacks still have higher rates of unemployment. The New York Times reports that “The unemployment rate for black male college graduates 25 and older in 2009 has been nearly twice that of white male college graduates – 8.4 percent compared with 4.4 percent.” This discrepancy appears baffling especially when both groups are equally qualified–that is, equally educated. However, as I know from experience, the differences between these groups are monumental.

A few years ago, a friend of mine found himself in the job market. He applied to numerous entry-level positions and would usually get an interview, but never get a job. His sticking point seemed to be the interview; he just couldn’t make a good impression. Although he was college educated, there were other factors that made him virtually unemployable to most businesses.

In every industry, employers seek applicants who have certain technical abilities and who also fit well into a corporate culture. That is to say, on the one hand, applicants need to be competent in the “hard skills.” These hard skills could be the ability to analyze data, to create a compelling PowerPoint presentation or to install a hard drive. Generally, one learns these skills in college or trade school. However, on the other hand, applicants must possess “soft skills.” This is the ability to interact with others-i.e., one’s ability to be agreeable in conduct and speech. The most employable are those who can demonstrate competency in both areas.

In the latter, my friend is woefully lacking. By reasonable business standards, his appearance is slovenly-his clothes don’t reflect the size of his body. His oversized attire is draped over his limbs like a trench coat over a coat rack. His demeanor, although friendly, is far from mainstream, and is best suited for a very provincial audience. He speaks with an unmistakably “inner-city” or “hip-hop” argot. His attempts to disguise his habitual speech only make it worse-the more he tries to control his speech the more affected it sounds. Finally, his mannerisms are off-putting and stereotypical. From his wild gesticulations to his habitually raucous laughter, he would be a difficult fit in any office environment.

Businesses are right to shun this behavior. The ability to carry oneself professionally is invaluable to both how a company interacts with its customers and how a company interacts internally, among employees. Although most people may underappreciate the value of soft skills, and overemphasize the importance of hard skills, both are crucial to the success of any business. Job applicants deficient in either are at a competitive disadvantage in the marketplace.

My friend’s “inner-city” culture erodes both hard and soft skills: it puts little or no value on education-resulting in comparatively lower technical ability; and the behavior it encourages is socially aberrant-resulting in mannerisms that are incommensurate with standards of corporate etiquette. If one’s culture reflects anti-business behavior, the result is virtual unemployability. This is true regardless of whether one has a college degree.

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