What I Learned Going from the College World to the Real World

As a recent graduate from Portland State University, the inclination to write this blog has been an ongoing dilemma. Since I first graduated high school, I knew limitations existed if I were to only attend school full time. Those limitations were slightly different from most others’ given the knowledge I had from my parents on just how different the real world could be from what's taught at school. Like most, I also needed financial help. It was evident to me that working while attending school was the only clear option. Given the vast amount of web information on graduate unemployment rates and the number of students who flood the job market each year, the statistics also back up my point. Although getting your degree is important, having some real-world knowledge with first-hand experience is just as invaluable.

My first two years of college taught me the true value of education. I learned general information in a multiplicity of fields from geology to business administration. I honed in on my public speaking skills, learned how to write better, and became more confident with the knowledge I had to share. Despite the value I gained from those first two years, the same cannot be said for the remaining two. As I progressed through my major in business administration, management, and leadership, I had an “aha” moment regarding the key disconnects between school and the rest of the world. This was due to both the narrowing scope of information being presented and the technicality of the more strategic learning elements.  Learning strategy, especially in management and leadership, can be a daunting task on its own. Add in a bunch of adjunct professors and full-time professors and you have yourself quite a bit of educational confusion and some serious information overload. I was lucky enough to bring some real world management experience from the day job I had at the time. To be honest, lucky doesn’t even describe the exact nature of this.

During school and before starting at Metal Toad, my day job was an operations supervisor at a shipping company. I managed a group of 15 to 30 union employees who emptied trailers, sorted packages, and reloaded them. As simple as this task may seem, working with union employees should be the first insight into some of the difficulties in the real world. As much as I adore unions and all they do for their members, at the company I was working for, there was a brick wall that stood as a reminder that it was “us versus them.” This mentality was exacerbated throughout the entire company; in fact, it's built into the culture. Working with people in this manner taught me more than any classroom ever could. As tough and as uncompromising as that job was, it helped shape who I am today.

As I transitioned to being a financial analyst at Metal Toad, I gained even more insight as to just how many disconnects there truly are between the educational world and the real world. I now have a better understanding of the importance of communication and accuracy, two areas that I simply never focused on while in class. I am extremely thankful for the opportunity that Metal Toad gave me in my original internship and now in my full-time occupation as a financial analyst. Compared to my previous job as an operations supervisor, working at Metal Toad has taught me a far more diverse and strategic level of knowledge relating to not only finance and accounting, but also to business as a whole. Knowledge that no classroom could have ever taught me.

In school — especially in business programs — you work with groups in virtually every class. You get to work on case studies and think about real-world problems. Although I could list out at least a few more valuable educational experiences, the point is clear enough: education is built upon knowledge that is often outdated, misrepresented, misinterpreted, and overanalyzed. Definitions listed in textbooks make sense on paper, but without real-world perspective and context they have zero value when you try to apply them in the professional world. Terms like “SMART goals” and “SWOT analyses” are often used in the classroom setting, and although they have been known to make their way into the corporate setting, most of us never use these terms as they are presented to college students. School is best defined as a foundational guide. If you go into college with the expectation that after graduation you will know everything that happens in your chosen career path, you won’t get very far.

The point of this blog isn’t to deter young people from getting an education — it’s to advise them that there are some fundamental differences between education and the professional world, and that finding a balance between the two is imperative to their success. Without it, I certainly would not be where I am today. Skills like Excel, organization, working with others, and meeting constant increasing expectations are just a few of the things that I had to improve upon while at Metal Toad. Although you can take classes specifically relating to these skills, they are not required in any form to get a basic bachelor's degree. To top it all off, one of the key downsides to school is the lack of creativity. Everything taught in school is predetermined and functions as a guide for how you do anything and everything, and there are almost always instructions given on what you need to do to succeed. The measurement of that success is a letter grade, and the worst possible situation is your GPA drops a little and you might need to retake a class — there are very few consequences for failing. In most jobs today, some level of creativity and know-how is required to get the job done. Sometimes you just need to figure it out on your own. The skills necessary to just simply figure things out are skills that take years and years to obtain. Albert Einstein did not get instructions on how to formulate the theory of relativity. So why should you?

As Albert Einstein once stated, “Try not to become a man of success, but rather a man of value.” How can we expect graduates to add any real value to this world if all they’re being taught is how to maintain things based on pre-existing knowledge and processes? As most of us can’t simply answer that question, I will make the point that school is designed to teach you what already exists. It helps you spot some of your strengths and your weaknesses, but it is not a complete guide on how to be successful. That is simply up to you. For those of you currently in college, great job and keep it up, but push yourself to get an internship or even a part-time job. It will help you far more than you can even imagine because outside of educational institutions, the world is unbound and the possibilities are endless. Companies like Metal Toad certainly personify that!

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