Answering Why: Chapter One Excerpt

Posted April 23, 2018 by Mark Perna

The following is an excerpt from chapter one of my new book, Answering Why: Unleashing Passion, Purpose, and Performance in Younger Generations. Answering Why releases in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook nationwide on September 18, 2018 and is available for preorder now. Visit to find out more and read the full introductory chapter.

A few years ago, when I was invited to speak at a Pathways to Prosperity workforce development conference at Harvard University, I discovered a piece of the answer to why there are millions of unfilled positions in the United States alongside millions of people seeking employment…Over lunch at the Harvard conference, I sat at a round table with four Fortune 100 senior executives. Two were from advanced manufacturers, one represented an agricultural company, and another was from the computer industry. (It just so happened that a U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education and a U.S. Assistant Secretary of Labor were also sitting at the table.) We had a dynamic conversation about building a skilled and well-trained workforce in America. The group asked a lot of questions about how I help schools across the country enroll and retain more of the right students, in the right programs, for the right reasons. They were fascinated that there was a company focused on increasing graduation rates with career-focused students and were quick to note the similarities between what I am able to accomplish with my clients and what they are trying to accomplish on national and global scales. In essence, they are trying to do the same thing: recruit and retain more of the right employees, in the right positions, for the right reasons. This quickly became our common ground and the foundation for a remarkably interesting dialogue.

As we discussed the growing skills gap in the United States, one of the manufacturing executives mentioned an anticipated company hire of 15,000 to 20,000 employees over the coming 24 to 36 months. This company is a high-tech global manufacturer with facilities worldwide. Manufacturing, the executive told us, is different today than it was many years ago. Their facilities are the cleanest, brightest, most sophisticated, advanced manufacturing sites you can imagine. He said you can eat off the floor of any of their plants—literally. He went on to say that the advanced equipment and modern facilities were something to see, far different than what people envision. These were high-tech, high-skilled, and high-wage jobs in these advanced manufacturing plants.

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He then explained how the workforce has changed over the past five years—not even a decade or two. Just five years ago, there were three distinct groups of labor his company would hire: high skilled, medium skilled, and low skilled. As few as five years ago, low-skilled laborers and support personnel made up a significant portion of the workforce. Today that percentage has dwindled to almost nothing due to the expanded use of advanced technology, robotics, and streamlined manufacturing processes, all of which are necessary to compete in a global marketplace. It is the high-skilled and medium-skilled jobs that they need to fill in order to stay competitive. As a result, there is less and less opportunity for low-skilled workers.

This executive then looked across the table and put both hands out directly in front of him, as if showing us the size of a fish he had caught. His palms were roughly two feet apart as he said, “Mark, this is the entire spectrum of the 15,000 to 20,000 people we have to hire over the next 24 to 36 months. Do you know how many of these people need a college degree?” I thought for a moment and said, “I don’t know.” He then slapped his hands together—which really grabbed my attention—and then edged his hands apart until they were almost touching, with only a sliver of space between them. “This many. Mark, we need the rest of this entire spectrum to accomplish our goals. We need high-skilled individuals we can train to operate, calibrate, and maintain many hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of equipment.” In his view, the unfortunate place at which we find ourselves is that we as a society view those who go to a four-year university as high achievers, and we view those who attend a career center, a vocational training program, or a community or technical college as being somehow lesser. Yet our workforce is starving for people who have developed the hands-on skills, work history, and experiences that come with certifications, apprenticeships, licensures, and career training programs—not necessarily just college. A degree may not be nearly enough on its own, without a skill or experience, to land someone a job anymore. This point was then echoed by each of the other executives at the lunch.

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If only a sliver of these 20,000 new workers require a college degree to land a highly desirable job, why is it the goal of almost every high school in America to graduate their students and send them off to college? Why does the vast majority of the Why Generation think a college education is absolutely essential to a good career?

We had discussed this at the table for a few moments when another executive of an advanced manufacturing and engineering company added the following insight. He said that his company made a strategic decision 10 years ago to no longer hire people with a master’s degree. I stared at him in questioning disbelief. This was a huge, household-name, high-tech global manufacturer and advanced engineering firm. “What do you mean?” I asked. He went on to explain that they no longer hire people with education for education’s sake. They only hire people based on their work history and experience. My eyes widened even more when he said, “Now, if you have a good work history and the experiences necessary to thrive in any position we are hiring for, including the CEO—and you happen to have a master’s degree—the master’s degree won’t hurt you.” Yes, he actually said, “The master’s degree won’t hurt you.” Where my jaw dropped in the discussion was when each of the other company executives at the table echoed that exact same strategy related to hiring people with a master’s degree. They had been doing it for different lengths of time, but all shared that common strategy.

I found it remarkably telling that a company would make this strategic decision. After much thought, I understood it. Education is not work history or experience; it is simply education. Until you have the relevant skills, work history, and experiences that demonstrate your grasp and use of the knowledge, then you simply have what my father called book smarts. I found this entire discussion fascinating because it showed how large, successful corporations view the changing workforce in this country based on their individual need to compete globally.

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About The Author
Mark Perna
Mark C. Perna is an international speaker and bestselling author. He also serves as CEO of TFS Results, a strategic consulting firm at the forefront of the national paradigm shift in education and workforce development.
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