Years ago, there was a great commercial that summed up a lot of people’s impressions, about those who get things done and those who talk about doing things. The commercial had a fella sitting behind a desk, his hair was kind of messed up, he looked a bit frumpy, but you could tell he was a boss of some kind, and he was reading someone’s resume. He seemed a bit disappointed, and I recall he was delivering some bad news to the applicant, who was sitting across from him, whom we haven’t seen yet. The gist of the closing line was something like this: “Well, all this looks great, and I’m sure you could do the job, but you got to have the paper, Lincoln.”
Across from the disheveled interviewer sat a disappointed Abraham Lincoln, who was just turned down for whatever job he was interviewing for because he lacked “the paper”—a term that was widely used in the day for a college education. Recently, my buddy told me that an organization I used to work for, the Albuquerque (NM) Fire Department, is now requiring command-level officers to have a college degree. Now, we all know that although Abraham Lincoln did not have a college education, nor did George Washington, nor did Steve Jobs, they all got things done.
My buddy and I began reminiscing about one of our coworkers. He had been nicknamed Jethro because he was always the “big idea” guy. He was also unquestionably one of the most competent, intelligent, and proficient firefighters and officers to ever serve in Albuquerque. He not only served the community with compassion and unfaltering devotion to duty, but he also served in the United States Marine Corps and raised a beautiful and loving family. There was no challenge that he did not rise to; there was no opportunity that he passed on; and even when he was required to be a disciplinarian, he approached it in a manner that was unparalleled for its level of insight and compassion. He was and is, in my opinion, the epitome of what a fire officer should strive to be. He could dream big and get it done.
This man rose to the rank of deputy chief; however, today, the human resources department, whose members I’m sure have college degrees, would not allow him to serve in that capacity. Managing all the incredibly dynamic and complex things that he did consumed so much time that he never had the time to devote to achieving a college education. He was not opposed to higher education—nor am I, as a matter of fact—and if he was not as devoted to his family and his Marine Corps, I’m sure he would have achieved a degree for the sole purpose of getting one. If anyone deserves a degree based on life experiences and achievements, it would be him.
I am not opposed to higher education and the attainment of degrees. I am a firm believer that a college degree should be given due concern and credit when assessing someone for certain positions. However, I do not believe it should be a sole criterion or disqualifier for any position within the fire service. The concern is how we have been conditioned to believe that academia, thinking about things, is the sole experience of learning value. Learning that gets things done, trades education, has equal value in my eyes. Rightfully, we give credit to prior military service in selection and, in some cases, promotion, and this is a good and proper thing to do, so why not trades education and experience?
In many cases, we look at military service closely and assign different values to attainment of different ranks and varying levels of responsibilities associated with those differing ranks. That being so, what about other valuable life experiences that pertain to various aspects of the art and science of firefighting? What about assigning value to men and women who completed education in trades schools and their experience and accomplishments in the field?
In our selection promotional processes, could we create an equivalency between, say, an associate’s, a bachelor’s, or a master’s degree and having completed trade school or achieved mastery in heating and air conditioning, welding, aircraft maintenance, carpentry, or plumbing? It seems that in the trade of firefighting, it may be of more benefit to understand automotive components and functionality than English literature and poetic composition. Cannot the argument be made that there is clearly a degree of equivalency between trade education and academic education, especially as it relates to competency in our chosen profession?
It seems folks who have “the paper” sometimes don’t value the efforts at learning of folks who get things done. Back in 1714, commercial sailing was a big deal, and accurate navigation was a huge problem—so big a problem that the British government set up a multimillion-dollar prize for the person who could build a device that could ensure navigation to within some narrow points over a long-distance trip. The task was finally accomplished by a man named John Harrison, a carpenter and clock maker, but he had to struggle for decades to get the prize and the recognition, which is wonderfully written about in Longitude by Dava Sobel. The funny thing is, some academics still want to wrestle the credit or maybe, more fairly, want to spread it out a bit more hundreds of years later!
Maybe it’s time we began a serious conversation about how we can weigh carpentry, auto mechanics, and plumbing as much as we weigh philosophy, municipal government, and psychology. I think Jethro, Abraham, and John would appreciate it if we stepped back and really considered the whole person, the efforts and contributions, the capabilities, and the possibilities—and not just the paper. We need men and women who can think big and get the job done.
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