Scott Walker, and the problem with valuing credentials over competence

Edward Morrissey:

My father hadn’t followed his own advice. He dropped out of the University of Arizona much like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker did later at Marquette, closer to a degree than I ever got, for personal reasons unrelated to academic achievement. He went into the aerospace industry and spent 29 years working on the space program, from Gemini to Apollo to the space shuttle. Dad was and still is an auto-didact, a man whose curiosity drove his intellectual growth, and he became a specialist in quality engineering, especially in non-destructive testing.

But the world had changed a bit since he started out in aerospace, and both of us knew it. More people went to college and got degrees, and my father saw how a lack of credentials put people in his industry at a competitive disadvantage. “All that matters is getting that piece of paper,” he’d tell me when my distinct lack of interest in studies manifested itself in academic problems at college. “That’s the ticket that opens doors. Once you’re in you can do whatever you like.”

I never got that ticket — and I paid a price for it, too. After working for a few years in the aerospace industry myself as a technical writer, I found myself out of work when that sector began its shift away from defense to commercial application. Without a degree, work in my field eluded me, and I took a couple of odd jobs — driving a cab for a couple of months in the Los Angeles area, which was interesting in a cold-sweats-and-nightmares kind of way, and picking up a shift as an overnight operator in an alarm call center. That job turned into an interesting and fulfilling career that would put me in middle management for a number of years, before the blogging revolution eliminated the credentialism of the writing and commentary fields and turned them into achievement-oriented environments.

Like any son who locks horns with his old man, I’d like to be able to argue that Dad turned out to be wrong. He wasn’t. Life turned out well for me — I am very blessed to make a living from my passion, writing — but the lack of a degree made it that more difficult to achieve that end. Credentialism became a hurdle to overcome at the start of my professional life, one that took me a decade to overcome in one career and two decades in another.