Focus Group Follies

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Today I had the opportunity to participate in a focus group on how community colleges could better meet the needs of the over-50 population. Since I am a big fan of community colleges and I meet that demographic, I thought the discussion would be quite informative.
And by the end of two hours, I found the insights and suggestions provided by the participants quite useful. However, despite having some thoughts and ideas I wanted to share with the group, I probably said less than 10 words during the two hours.
The reason for this was my disappointment with the focus group leader. Despite stating up front that she wanted the participants to do most of the talking, I found her stating her opinion on a variety of topics throughout the session, and she ended up doing most of the talking.
And that’s what I found to be problematic. She made many statements which I either completely disagreed with or even found offensive. Since I didn’t want to turn the session into a confrontational one, I opted to stay quiet. I don’t have any issue with someone having a different opinion than mine, but I do see it as a problem when a focus group leader is using the session as a forum to get her ideas across. I felt that the leader was no really interested in soliciting the opinions of the group, but leading everyone towards her preconceived idea of how things should be.
Below is a sample of a few of the statements this woman made that I either disagreed with or even found personally offensive:
“I don’t know if you know anything about academics, but many of them have no clue what’s going on.” This was personally offending, having been an academic for most of my career. I have taught accounting at Villanova for 29 years, and I have found that the vast majority of those I work with are completely committed to not only helping students successfully navigate their way through college, but wanting to see them succeed after college as well. She told a story of a panel she was on that included an academic, and at some point the academic apparently said something along the line of, “colleges aren’t meant to prepare students for a job, but a career.” She also downplayed the importance the academic placed on critical thinking.
I no longer tell anyone to pursue his or her passion. I tell them to get a job.” This woam is a career counselor! I would never want someone giving me, or any of my children, such advice. I believe it is advice such as this that helps to explain why a significant amount of workers are not happy in their current position. Here is a recent report giving the data to support this: http://www.forbes.com/sites/susanadams/2012/05/18/new-survey-majority-of-employees-dissatisfied/ 
There’s a wide number of employment opportunities available for people. For some individuals a technical school to learn a trade  may be exactly what that student is looking for and is the perfect place for such an individual. So in these cases, you are preparing someone for a specific job, which is what should be done in this situation. For other employment opportunities, the importance of good communication skills, and the ability to think critically are what employers are looking for in applicants. In those situations, the traditional college degree may be the most appropriate type of degree. Here’s one such example supporting the value of critical thinking: https://www.aacu.org/press/press-releases/employers-more-interested-critical-thinking-and-problem-solving-college-major
And by the way, our accounting majors have a 99% placement rate by the time graduation rolls around. So not only do they have a job, but more importantly they have acquired a broader set of skills that will enable them to build a successful career.
And as far as preparing someone for a job versus a career, it may be a disservice preparing a person for a job that may not exist in 5 to 10 years, particularly if that is all they have been prepared for. But when you prepare students by giving them strong communication and critical thinking skills,  they are better able to adapt to changing conditions in the work place.
The focus group leader also used an analogy of drawing different jigsaw puzzle pieces on the board representing the variety of experiences that many people accumulate early in life. These experiences could be different courses, work experiences, internships, certifications, etc. She then asked us what was missing, and she replied that there was no big picture to see where the puzzle pieces would fit. She then said that is how she counsels people, to first think of the picture they want to have, and then work backwards to fill in the picture with the right pieces.
I don’t agree with such an approach. I think it is quite helpful to have people take a variety of classes, training courses, etc., without knowing upfront why they are accumulating such experiences. I think by first locking into what the picture should be, it locks someone into the boundaries of that picture, and as a result could miss out on some great opportunities if they were just taking a course because it sounded interesting. Steve Jobs said it best in his famous graduation speech at Stanford:  “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” In other words, you shouldn’t worry about trying to connect all of the courses and experiences you may be having so that they fit into some preconceived picture of what your life should be, but trust that when you look back on all of those courses and experiences, you can see how they led you to where you are today.
She also talked about how little time millennials spend at any one job. I have had the same job for 29 years, and staying with one employer was something important to me, and the same for my dad, who spent 30 years with one company. But the world has changed; employers no longer offer a long-term commitment to its employees the way they did when the members of our focus group were beginning our careers. Since employers don’t offer much loyalty to its employees, it should come as no surprise that employees today act the way they do. Since employees really can no longer rely on their employer to provide them with long-term employment, then employees need to take personal responsibility for their own career, which is a good thing. If an employer treated their employees well, then they would not experience the amount of turnover that they do.
I have worked with millennials for a good part of my career, and they are an absolute joy to work with. They are committed to not only a job that helps pay the bills, but a job that makes a difference. They have a strong commitment to service, and want to be socially responsible. I am guessing today’s focus group leader would have ridiculed such points if I had raised them.
I loved my experience at the local community college. I tell anyone who asks that of all my academic experiences, bachelors, masters, PhD, and then my Associates degree, my time at the community college was my favorite. I found the teachers to be incredibly committed to the mission of the college and to their students. I also tell people that I think the best way to earn a four-year college degree today is two years at a community college, and then transfer to a four-year college. But again, I realize that is not the right path for everyone.
And so I agree with the general outcome of the focus group that community colleges can play a key role in the lives of the over-50 population. Some of these individuals are may have just lost a job and don’t know what to do to find a new one; some may be lacking some basic skills, such as computer skills, that are needed for most jobs today; some may be looking towards learning new skill set to prepare them for retirement; some may just be looking for enrichment. All of these are options that a community college could offer to the older student.
And while many of these ideas came out during the focus group, I think the members of the focus group could have come up with such a list if we were left alone in a room by ourselves. To me an ideal focus group leader gets the group talking, keeps them on track, and other than that, stays out of the discussion. That was not the case today, but fortunately the outcome was still successful.

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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