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A Modern Vocational Curriculum

When I wrote Starry Eyes and Starry Skies a few weeks back, I made the argument that adequate vocational training for just about every financial services job I could think of would take several months (at most). A few readers asked me why I didn’t think that a longer, more in-depth liberal arts education had value. They clearly didn’t read the piece.

Still, it’s worthy of an answer: I do think it has value. But its value is caught up in the conflicted mess of the three products being sold by American universities: mind-expanding liberal education, vocational training and credibility signaling. We do no service to those whose jobs will ultimately never require them to use even the most modest insights or critical thinking gained from detailed study of Dostoevsky by forcing them to do so for four or more years. We likewise do no service to those who would learn for learning’s sake and yet subject them to four years of watered down classes that have to justify their value in some vocational or competitive signaling sense against other departments or institutions.

When you try to solve for multiple problems, you are almost always solving for only one.

A few other readers who actually read the piece asked me what I thought that truncated vocational training would look like. More recently, the CEO of Presto, a hospitality technology company, posted a similar, if more general question. Specifically, he asked:

If you could redesign college education for smart people who don’t know what they want to be, what would it look like?

His answer was quite good. I just have a different take. So here’s my answer: an intensive set of three separate quarterly sessions over a period of nine months, structured not to identity what is most important but to target the fundamental modern skills that are not necessarily more easily acquired in a work-place setting, and which provide the easiest ramp for additional hard- and soft-skill development in other areas once in that professional environment. It is an important distinction, because in almost every case, the most important determinants of success will have little to do with curriculum and knowledge, and far more to do with temperament, values and natural abilities in a range of different areas.

The topics excluded in the curriculum are left out for very different reasons. You don’t include econometrics because it’s useless unless you plan to become a graduate-level economist. You don’t include a productivity software class because two weeks of Excel without a mouse in your first job will do a better job of it. You don’t include an ethics course because if you are prone to unethical behavior, it sure as hell ain’t gonna be a class that changes that.

I’m sure you’ll let me know in the comments how much you hate it.

Quarter 1

Quarter 1, Module 1: Professional Writing

Good writing is the rarest skill among young professionals I have hired. It is also the trait shared among those who progressed quickly in accomplishment and responsibility.

  • Short-form writing:
    • Extracting and synthesizing key information
    • Bulletized / short-form writing
    • Note-taking
    • Email / slack-style
  • Long-form writing:
    • Technical
    • Analytical

Quarter 1, Module 2: Calculus

I’ll get the most argument on this one. But y’all, there really are a lot of jobs that benefit from understanding the calculation and implications of rates of change. You need more math than high school gives you.

  • Limits, integrals and derivatives
  • Differential equations
  • Optimization and graph construction

Quarter 1, Module 3: Fundamental Managerial and Financial Accounting

Every graduate who might work in some kind of business or non-profit (which is, as it happens, just about all of them) should be able to read and largely understand its financial statements, and should have some sense of how to build a similar financial statement for a household or small enterprise.

  • Ledgers, accounts, line items, debits and credits
  • Accruals and cash
  • Assets, liabilities, equity, income and expenses
  • Standardized structure (IS/BS/CF)

Quarter 1, Module 4: Interviewing, Public Speaking and Debate

Most university graduates are terrible extemporaneous, prepared, ad hoc and informal verbal communicators.

  • Basic formal logic
  • Research, preparation and performance techniques
  • Interview question formulation, conducting
  • Email, phone, conference call, video call, and meeting-size variable etiquette
  • Practical settings

Quarter 2

Quarter 2, Module 1: Capital Markets

You could call this corp fin, too, but importantly. the right course design here needs to emphasize far more about fund-raising, sources of capital and project/investment return evaluation, and far less about valuation techniques and grinding out WACC calculations. In short, a young professional should know what ROI means, the kinds of decisions that improve it, and the kinds of manipulation that others will practice to make it look improved. They should also know what secondary financial markets are and how they work at a high level.

  • Forms, sources and costs of capital
  • Returns and project evaluation
  • Capital structure optimization, credit and risk
  • Secondary markets

Quarter 2, Module 2: Statistics and Probability

  • Conditional probabilities
  • Measuring relationships, regression, optimization
  • Measuring central tendency and distribution characteristics
  • Interpretations, esp. applicability of generalized measures

Quarter 2, Module 3: Programming in Python

This will change at some point in the future. For now, any graduate of any post-secondary program purporting to have vocational influence should be at least proficient in the structure, syntax and methods of Python programming.

  • Structure and syntax, objects and classes
  • Libraries, API and packages
  • Functional programming
  • Data integration
  • Intro to ML, NLP, Tensorflow, etc.

Quarter 2, Module 4: Modern Sectors, Industries and Trade

Macroeconomics curricula are only slightly less useless for most students than microeconomics versions. The gap left for most students by removing them, however, is a simple, if detailed survey of what kinds of companies are out there, what their business models are, how they integrate, who their vendors and customers are, how they make money and how they fund themselves.

Quarter 3

Quarter 3, Module 1: Project / Experiment Management

The skill at organizing projects and resources is a technical one useful to almost any entry-level professional role. It is also a philosophical one that is critical to growth in managerial or leadership positions.

  • Workflows and dependencies
  • Timing, resource allocation
  • Organizational design
  • Conventions for group communication, meetings, logistical planning
  • Marketing experiment design and execution

Quarter 3, Module 2: Databases and Data Analysis

Most skill with data analysis tools and techniques will be best developed in a working environment on live projects. But fundamental knowledge here is important to building those skills.

  • Data classification, ordering and storage
  • Data retrieval, metadata and queries
  • Common data analysis techniques and packages
  • Applied statistical techniques

Quarter 3, Module 3: Business Law

The first job a graduate has should not be the first time they’ve read a contract, encountered its peculiar terms of art, navigated between defined terms and a contract body, or seen disclaimers, indemnities or closing conditions.

  • Torts and contracts
  • Regulation, regulators and SROs
  • Universal principles, esp. fraud

Quarter 3, Module 4: Hospitality

No fourth module this quarter. Instead, everyone works a food service job.

No, I’m not kidding.

Classes on sales are nonsensical gobbledygook, but the idea is right. It’s just something that can only be captured in a practical setting. If most graduates lack anything as much as they do writing and general communication skills, it is an understanding of how to respond with grace under pressure. It is the realization that one is always, always selling in every direction in any professional setting. It is a mentality that emphasizes hospitality, a much better and more comprehensive concept than client service or customer service models.

All told, with decent instructors, I’d be happy to put up a graduate of this program of equal natural abilities against a graduate of any undergraduate program in the country.

It’s unrealistic, I suppose, to consider that we will be able to break the stranglehold that signaling-based institutions have on structuring an expensive four years that functionally serves only a portion of students at all, and almost nobody well. Still, it is worthwhile for us to go through thought experiments like this, if only to perform self-evaluations, give thought to how we structure our professional education programs within our businesses, and how our own children’s educations are going.

It is also important for us to consider how we can make it feasible for a true, liberally minded, horizons-expanding education to exist without the frequently oppositional aims of signal-maximizing and vocational preparation. You won’t be surprised to hear that I think it starts younger, with less reliance on the system or with more reliance on the Pack.

Yeah, we’ve got a lot more to say about this.

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  1. Interesting selection. You might be interested to know that something very similar ( already exists. I have no association with them, other than working with some graduates and recommending people send their kids there as opposed to University. There are a couple of changes:

    1. Students pay no tuition until the graduate and get a job that pays $50K plus/year.
    2. The annual amount they pay is charged as a percentage of their salary and is capped both in what’s paid in a year (I think around $17K) and in total (I think its around $30).
    3. There is testing to get in.
    4. It is based around software engineering.
    5. The program takes 9 months to complete.
    6. Lambda school is incentivized to get the students jobs, though there is more demand for graduates than there are graduates.

    I can attest that their graduates are excellent.

  2. Does this mean Delta House gets off double secret probation?

  3. I previously taught economics, statistics and related courses at a R1 university, at both the undergraduate and graduate level. When I reflect on the experience, I feel guilt at how pointless it all was, in pretty much every respect. The objective wasn’t to develop better people, citizens or professionals, so it’s no surprise that didn’t happen. Rather, the only person who really benefited from the whole exercise was me, as teaching that content was a necessary step in my academic career. The students were fodder for a tenure application.

    As an entrepreneur, I’ve hired recent graduates into technical and semi-technical roles. On average, the skills they’ve developed as university students don’t add value in the short run. As a result, they get paid a lot less than they would be paid otherwise. Certainly it’s not a new dynamic for new hires to learn, create value and earn pay raises over time. Yet in a world in which students incur significant debt to study at universities, it’s acerbic that curricula undermine their ability to add value, and thus pay off the debt.

    This “what’s your curriculum?” is a fun exercise, and as a parent, I guess it’s useful to think about how to advise high-school-aged kids on their next steps. Yet from a societal point of view, it feels quixotic to challenge the status quo in higher education. I don’t see any mechanism to disrupt it. If someone does, then please don’t keep that insight to yourself.

  4. I’m all for everyone working in the food service industry, but not at places like the picture above portrays. I bet the cops haven’t been called to that place even once in the last six months over a “disturbance” - and that is the experience you need: working with people that are disturbed.

  5. I believe the spirit of the idea here is absolutely correct and overdue. This is the future direction we need to take education in…
    I’ll more comments over time but here is one from the comics I found cool :

    Bruce Wayne – in his quest to develop abilities beyond the normal man he is– goes to different universities and academies and all kinds of strange esoteric fighting schools – to learn what he needs to become the Batman….he never stuck around to get a diploma or a degree in any one place….

  6. I’ll add an anecdote from my earlier years……I knew a Burmese family that was rather wealthy – the men told me that as part of their social education, they had to spend one month as Buddhist monks , and beg for food on the streets every day . Regardless of the fact that they lived in big houses with multiple servants or that their parents drove expensive European cars.
    The idea – to teach them humility ……
    Of course, they cheated by asking friends and relatives to give them food every day but I thought the original concept – humility – was a good one.

  7. Yes, Lambda school has done some interesting things, although as with our own little thought experiment, we still think Clear Eyes means recognizing the power of the signal retained by so-called elite universities. It is an up-hill battle, although perhaps worth it.

    More to the point, though, Lambda is far more specialized as a computer science program. Different question, similar answer in terms of how long pure vocational training should take. Still, I think there are skills missing from their program that ARE critical, even for programmers.

    1. I disagree. Marketing, sales, finance and administration jobs account for a solid majority of positions in almost every service industry.
    2. You are making the argument I start the piece observing: that liberal arts education has value. Yes, it does. For reasons I go into detail on in my prior piece and summarize in this one, I simply think it should be thought of and pursued separately from vocational education.
    3. That book list is marvelous. If you’re looking for agreement that everyone who can should read as many of those books as they can get their hands on, you have it. But that’s a different question.
  8. I could not agree more with the value of those more esoteric ideas. What I struggle with is the extent to which we can really systematize lessons which require us to internalize and experience the underlying philosophy in order to grasp. Humility is a powerful lesson - far more powerful than any of the classes I’ve outlined - but it is an experiential lesson given to us by life, circumstance and chance. It cannot be made synthetically any more than grace, mercy, compassion, patience or goodness can be.

    It is an idea which I think creates many of the inefficiencies of our post-secondary system: that if we consider some trait to be important in adults, citizens and workers, we must signal our belief in its importance by teaching it through some sort of formal pedagogy, even if formally teaching it is the last way that it can be learned. Most of the liberally enriching coursework, or ethics classes, or charity project-oriented classes are meant to do exactly that kind of thing, even though the groundwork for the ethical professional was laid and grouted over the two decades prior and unlikely to be changed by a group project or two at age 20.

    Still, a Bruce Wayne-like focus on skill and trait-acquisition would be better for us all, I think, without the overwhelming power of credential-signaling. And there is value, I think, for each of us to think about the question and even to pursue those things ourselves, to some extent. At the cultural level, however, it’s the demand side that has to change. Employers have to be willing to invest in traits other than sheepskin traits, and those of us who have the power to determine those policies have to be willing to take the risks to move us in that direction.

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