Friday, January 11, 2013

The credentialization of America

Last week, I wrote a post about government policies gone bad in Chicago, and how those policies are getting in the way of innovation and economic growth. I wrote:
The fact of the matter is that most politicians don't have a clue about what it actually takes to promote economic growth, even while they recognize that it's the absolute only way out of our current budgetary morass, given those same politicians' utter unwillingness to do anything meaningful to address it. 
As I've written here before, if we really want sustainable economic growth, then we need to be incentivizing innovation and entrepreneurship, not stifling it with overly onerous regulations that turn a simple task like starting a food truck business into a Sisyphean struggle. But, of course, we seem to be consistently doing the opposite, just about everywhere we look. 
We pass regulations on top of regulations from coast to coast, and we issue overly broad patents that protect the large companies at the expense of the small and innovative start-ups. We pass bizarre "taxpayer relief" bills without reading them, rubber-stamping a plethora of corporate kickbacks and subsidies in the process when nobody's looking. And we require that ever more trivial jobs require credentials and continuing education, increasing the cost of pursuing just about any career path we may choose (I'll have more on that topic next week).
Well, here it is, next week, and I am a man of my word. I happen to follow the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Twitter, largely because it's amusing to do so. Last week, they posted a status talking all about certificates, and how they were the "fast track" to careers. They linked to this strange little marketing pamphlet, which talks all about how awesome these certificates are. In it, they wrote:
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has identified 33 occupations as typically requiring a certificate or other postsecondary nondegree award for people entering those occupations. In 2010–11, according to NCES, the most popular disciplines for certificate programs were healthcare, personal and culinary services, and mechanic and repair technologies and technicians. But people also earned certificates in a wide range of other occupational areas, such as computer and information sciences and protective services.
This includes jobs like hairdressers, nannies, fitness trainers, all the way down to computer programmers and web administrators. Strangely enough, most accountants, preschool teachers, and paralegals reported that they didn't need any special sort of certificate, which is honestly a little bit bizarre.

Now, in many of these cases, the tendency toward requiring certificates provides a very valuable protection for consumers—they can be assured that they're getting at least a minimum level of competence from the people they hire, and that's usually a good thing. But as these credentials and certificates creep their way down into even the most "unskilled" of occupations, I have to wonder what the point of it all is.

Is all of this just making it harder for everyone to meet basic job requirements? And is that a good thing for the economy at large? Or are these requirements just destined to get in the way of economic growth, like the licensing requirements for food trucks in Chicago in my earlier post? I'm all for safeguarding certain professions and making sure that the people who are in high-risk or high-impact positions don't blow up the world, but I think we've gotten way beyond that now.

I've been through a few of these types of training courses on my own over the years (TIPS training was a personal favorite), and I can tell you first-hand: they're not all exactly academically rigorous. Generally speaking, I'm not any more or less likely to do the right thing as a bartender or a financial advisor or a manicurist or whatever else just because I forked over a few hundred bucks and took a couple of classes with some common-sense tests attached to the back of them. Ultimately, there's a big difference between knowing the right thing to do, and then actually doing the right thing. Shocking, I know.

As consumers, we can't be so willing to outsource our due diligence to these certificate-granting institutions, whichever they may be. Many times, we in fact allow ourselves to become more vulnerable as a result, because it's incredibly easy for a scam artist to get himself a license or certificate and then hide behind his "credentials". And in the process, we may actually have made it more difficult for an honest and hard-working man to get that same job. That's bad.

Maybe none of this matters, and I'm just howling at the moon a bit, but I don't think this world needs any more licenses and certificates and credentials than it already has. What it does need is more common sense, more personal accountability, and more innovation and entrepreneurship. Unfortunately, again, we seem to be headed in the wrong direction.

[Bureau of Labor Statistics]

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