A matter of degree

Politics isn’t the only bar to merit hiring

Baptists have had more success against sin in Illinois than merit-hiring advocates have had against patronage. As I noted the other day, political patronage has been a factor in hiring in State of Illinois agencies since they unloaded the wagons from Vandalia. (“The arts of the patron,” Jan. 3). At hearings of the Illinois Reform Commission in 2010, members were entertained with lurid stories of what they described in their final report as “widespread abuse involving patronage hiring [and] manipulation of the personnel system” that erode employee morale.

Morale seldom sinks lower than when people who are less able get jobs and promotions while the unconnected languish. While the phenomenon is almost always discussed in terms of public sector jobs, private sector workforces also are burdened with staff who got and keep their jobs for reasons that have nothing to do with merit. Your idiot supervisor at the bank may keep that job only because he’s a brown-nose; the vice-president of the supermarket chain sleeps all day, but his dreams are not troubled by fears of dismissal because he and the company president went to the same college. Good-looking people tend to be everywhere over plain-looking people, just as tall people are favored over the short and the svelte are favored over the obese. You can’t call it fair, but you have to call it human.

Getting back to the State of Illinois: The spoils system was the practice in Illinois until 1895, when Gov. John Peter Altgeld signed a law setting up merit hiring in Chicago, subject to the approval of the voters, who gave it overwhelmingly. The now-familiar apparatus of civil service hiring – exams for positions, promotion by merit or seniority rather than clout, firings only for cause, and an appointed commission to administer it all – was put into place that later became the model for public hiring everywhere.

Civil service, alas, proved not quite the panacea that its backers promised it would be. Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison III, one of that city’s best, was against civil service, because he thought it kept as many good people from jobs as bad ones. “I criticized an examination for patrolman,” he wrote mockingly in 1935, “in which … the question was propounded as to the best and shortest route between Chicago and Tokyo. A fictitious Irishman was portrayed as leaving the examination room with the statement: ‘If that’s one of the beats, be-Gorrah! I don’t want the job!’”

These days, of course, it is not only the civil service test that one must pass. Employers of all kinds insist upon formal education as a proxy for job-related skills. Such applicants come pre-tested, as it were, by the schools they graduate from, which saves the employer the hassle and cost of assessing job potential by other means.

A degree may now be as common a credential as a driver’s license, but it is not a reliable one. Yes, it is proof that its bearer is diligent in the completion of assigned tasks that are not in themselves interesting – a crucial attribute in any job. But does formal education impart specific, job-related expertise? Ask any manager. I recall a rookie reporter I knew, who showed up for work with a freshly minted master’s degree in journalism. She was eager to cover politics, but could not name either of Illinois’ then-U.S. senators. Her meaningful education had only just begun.

To my mind, requiring a degree to get access to a job is as unfair as requiring political pull because it is a barrier to the upwardly ambitious social classes. The cost of buying a few tickets to the fund-raising barbeque each summer is peanuts compared to the tens of thousands of dollars one must spend to get the degree that a decent job requires, and too few people of talent can afford it.

Why is a degree the solid-gold credential? Because requiring an expensive degree as ticket to admission limits the supply of potential applicants and drives up wages for the ins by closing the door to talented outs. A good example was the flap in the 1990s when the Park Superintendents’ Professional Association sued the Edgar administration, alleging that inexperienced people were being clouted into jobs as superintendents at Illinois state parks and historical sites. The complaint was that the hires lacked formal training in preservation and park management, as is required for such jobs in other states. Thus was another shot fired from the reformer’s ranks at the patronage troops in their never-ending battle over jobs.

In sum, the fix is always in. It’s just that sometimes you don’t know what the fix is. There is still much to do to improve state hiring practices, beginning with the fact that there are too many “policy” positions that aren’t. But degrees are required for too many jobs in which commensurate experience is perfectly adequate preparation.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.

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