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Dropouts: The Great American Workforce Waiting to Happen

Taking a chance might pay off.
Taking a chance might pay off.
Artwork by Igot Kisselev/Shutterstock

In The King’s Speech, a movie about King George VI’s ascension to the throne of the British Empire – the royal hires a speech therapist, named Lionel Logue, to overcome his stammer. The most powerful scene in the movie is when the king questions his teacher’s educational background, or lack there of, in a moment of frustration.

“I vouched for you and you have no credentials,” he claims, as he can barely get the words out.

“But lots of success,” Logue retorts about helping shell-shocked veterans get their voice back after the Great War. “I can’t show you a certificate. There was no training then. Everything I know, I know from experience, and that war was some experience. My plaque says ‘L. Logue Speech Defects.’ Not doctor. There are no letters after my name.”

He didn’t need a degree to help the king speak with confidence and lead a nation in 1936.

Apparently, you don’t need one to work at Tesla, either, in 2020.

Elon Musk’s recent tweet claiming he’d recruit someone to his team without a high school diploma shows that innovation isn’t a word exclusive to technological advances, but it applies to how you think and choose to see the world. Sometimes innovation is discovered inside – not what’s hidden – but what’s in plain sight.

Uber saw that cars parked in driveways were actually a national workforce waiting to happen. Technology follows and backs up these revelations, then nothing is ever the same. Musk just shed light on a workforce waiting to happen, too. The ones who lack “the paper.”

So how would technology back up a perspective that experience trumps education, or at the very least, has equal footing when gauging job candidates? It’s less complicated than an app. Just eliminate the function in many online application processes that weed out those pesky underachieving dropouts with the nerve to vie for a manager role inside a corporation. Open the floodgates to those who follow the path of Mark Zuckerberg, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates – hell, Lionel Logue – and so many more with lesser stature.

Take a chance on someone like me.

Bob Haenel did in 1997. At the time, he was managing editor of a small daily newspaper that hired me straight out of high school to write obituaries and work the crime and high school sports beats. Bob once looked at me, a skinny Mexican-American kid who grew up in rundown apartments and trailers, and said, “I wish I could have a blood transfusion from you,” meaning he admired my guts and determination. I was the only Latino face in that bullpen, yet I felt believed in like a prodigy.

Bob made me feel valued and gave me an opportunity that seeded inside of me a high-risk, potentially dangerous idea: I didn’t need a degree to be successful. It was this belief system that experience, not college, would prepare me for the real world challenges of the professional realm, and if I had time, and if university curriculum showed me it could keep up with the future, I’d get a college degree, or not.

That’s what’s happening today. Elon’s tweet is a signal of a new way of measuring the value of people in the workplace. Several large companies dropping degree requirements in recent years in favor of people who have experience that enables them to perform is a sign of the times that are awaiting us on a grander scale. It may be a hard reality to swallow for those who are paying school loans today. It was harder for my classmates and colleagues who grew up with me.

I skipped my journalism classes at the University of Houston to work stories back in my hometown of Richmond, Texas and my words would end up on the front page, while they covered their local school board meeting for a homework assignment and had their words graded by our professor. I left UH with a barely passing GPA my sophomore year, flunked out of the University of Texas at San Antonio the next year, and dropped out of the University of Maryland soon thereafter, but I had an irrefutable portfolio of above-the-fold work by then. It was the first domino that nabbed me Washington, D.C. internships of which I didn’t meet the qualifications for, which led to jobs at nonprofits, advertising agencies and corporations, that on paper, I didn’t pass muster for.

But you see, I kept running into “Bobs.” Richard Rugnao, Yolanda Caraway, Ingrid Duran, Alex Lopez Negrete, Rudy Ruiz, Alison Rinehart, Norelie Garcia. Bosses with superb credentials from places like Harvard and Penn State, who didn’t care about mine. Their innovation was taking limits off of people to give them a chance to be great, way before Elon sent that tweet.

Bob didn’t mean for me to drop out of college. He wanted me to get my degree and told me this much. But what his decision to hire me at such a young age taught me was that we have it all wrong. We talk about education and experience as two different concepts when they are really one in the same and should hold equal weight. Experience is education. Our education comes from our experiences.

But insecurity hinders people from hiring candidates without a degree or even considering them. Or maybe it’s also fear that they won’t perform because of this idea that college is the only place you can attain the skillset to do the job.

Those things tell us that if that man or woman didn’t follow my path you can’t be picked for our team, when it’s the underdogs that many times have defined America’s greatness. Even when it’s staring us in the face, like a tweet from Elon or a true story about a self-taught speech therapist, we refuse to learn and open up. And I think it’s because it begs a very difficult question. “If you are as successful or more successful than me without a college degree, what does that say about my path?”

It doesn’t say what you think it does.

College and high school dropouts don’t want to stick it to anyone with a degree. They simply want an opportunity to prove that they can contribute. Opening candidacy to people who have taken a less traditional path doesn’t mean we are minimizing higher education. It just means we aren’t minimizing a whole group of capable people anymore. We go to college to get validation from an institution to tell us that we are worthy of opportunity. To me, that’s not any more noble than those who seek it elsewhere – in the trenches learning their craft or attaining skills that are transferrable to more challenging work environments.

There are fields, like medicine and engineering, where degrees are absolutely necessary, but are there far more where they shouldn’t be a deal breaker?

Hiring someone without a degree is just as risky as a company who doesn’t produce art bringing on an art major, but it happens a thousand times a day, because we value their experiences, not what they spent four years studying. So let’s allow perspective to innovate how we view people and not see them as less than, because someone’s life story played out differently.

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Today, I own a firm that helps some of the largest companies and nonprofits in the U.S. tell great stories about multicultural communities. The woman who owns a third of my company was a bartender who had left college when I found her. I invested in her like Bob did with me. She eventually chose to finish school online so it wouldn’t hinder the work she was already doing for corporations, and because she worried that defying the social construct that requires a degree would mean a nearly impossible path to success. The man who was our agency’s chief visual storyteller picked up a camera for the first time a year ago, learned video editing on YouTube and didn’t finish the eighth grade. He’s done beautiful shoots for Fortune 500 companies and is sought out by them. You wouldn’t see him in a classroom if you paid him.

They’re not special. There are many like them – and me – with lackluster education and no letters after their names, who are waiting in plain sight, ready to give a corporation, nonprofit or small business a blood transfusion if you give them a shot.

Nothing will ever be the same if we all act like Bob.

Contributor Rolando Rodriguez is the co-founder of Trill Multicultural.

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