Next Step Therapy Blog: ‘A College Degree Is Not Enough’

Tracy 1Tracy Cowles, CEO and owner of Next Step Therapy, submitted the following article – “A College Degree Is Not Enough.”

I was never a particularly stunning student. I was never tested for the gifted program, never took an “A/P” class, never made it to National Honor Society, and in fact, graduated just barely in the upper third of my high school class. No one ever accused me of being brilliant, at least until I turned thirty-five. I DID, however, choose to go to college (which I think shocked my high school teachers and guidance counselors), and I DID get a Master’s degree in Speech Pathology, and eventually I opened Next Step Therapy, Inc. NOW people think I may be brilliant. I giggle just thinking about it.

I really never had a talent for advanced math. Literally, when I see an equation like y-y1 = m (x-x1) where x = 1, -3 = y and m= 4, my eyes glaze over, and I get nauseous. Funny, I have run a multi-million dollar business for the past eight years, and I’ve never bounced a check, so I guess I know enough math to get by. What I did have, instead of math acumen, was an empathy for people and their problems, and a work ethic.

I began “working” as a babysitter when I was twelve, and had many families that utilized my service for many years throughout my teens. I also was part of an “Adopted Grandparent” program where I went to visit the elderly and helped them with small jobs. At fifteen I worked Saturdays at a fabric store, and at sixteen worked at a local Burger King. I waitressed at Pappan’s Family Restaurant for two years, and worked all through college.

While my college degree gave me entry into the field of my choice, and my alma mater Clarion University of Pennsylvania gave me excellent education, it really was all of this “work experience” that made the difference for me. Through these jobs, I learned how money really works. I learned that providing excellent customer service prevented millions of problems. I learned that a person needs to work things out with co-workers, and that not everyone worked as hard as everybody else. I learned to make decisions. I learned when to handle something on my own, and when to involve a supervisor. I learned that some people are one hundred percent reliable, and that others just don’t care. I learned that there is something called a “functional alcoholic.” I learned that some people could go out to dinner and order cocktails, appetizers, filet mignon and deserts, racking up a two hundred dollar tab without blinking an eye, while others drank water and shared a main course.

Many, many lessons in life and business were given to me through my waitressing jobs, and I am grateful for each and every one of them.

So, why am I sharing all of this with you today? Well, several things have happened recently that spurred me to write this. First, Next Step Therapy is a big, booming business, and happily over the years, we have had very little turnover. We have known for several months that we need to hire a therapist to cover new growth, but we’ve been holding off to find the right person. Meanwhile, one of our therapists announced that they would be retiring this spring (someone that has been SOOOO good, they are nearly irreplaceable). Naturally, four of my therapists have announced that they will be taking maternity leave this spring. FOUR!!!! In the meantime, someone else got married and is moving away, and one of our employees had to take an emergency medical leave.

The second thing that has happened is that my oldest son has just turned seventeen, is a junior in high school, and is taking his SAT’s in a few weeks. He has been solid in his desire for a certain college degree for several years. He has been going to college fairs. He has picked one. It is a private school, and it does offer the dual degree he has been looking for, but it is also waaaayyyy out of my budget. So we had to talk. During our talk my son came to the realization that most of his friends have part time jobs – he is one of the few who doesn’t. Therefore, he has found a job starting this spring, and I am thrilled that he has decided to move in this direction.

Here is how it is: A physical therapy degree from any certified institution in Pennsylvania is the same to me as any other physical therapy degree from any other certified institution in Pennsylvania. All of these programs are required by the State to offer the same exact classes, providing the student with pretty much the exact same information. All students are required to do the same type of externships at the same type of places for the same amounts of time. Yes, your anatomy teacher might have been “better” or “tougher” than Joe’s anatomy teacher, but I have to assume that during both of your seven years of higher education it works out pretty evenly. So I’m looking at three resumes. They all say the same thing. You got your degree, and you pulled somewhere between a 3.75 and a 4.0 for a GPA. Go you!

However, that 3.8 only tells me that you are a good student, and a good test taker. It tells me NOTHING about who you are as a person.

At Next Step Therapy, and companies like mine, we send therapists out to houses to treat babies from birth to three years old. Babies who are sick, with developmental delays with parents who are scared and devastated. You will go alone, and will deal with those parents and that baby on your own, with no supervision. It’s not like a hospital or nursing home where anybody on the team can walk in at any time to see what you are doing. I have to KNOW, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I am sending the right person. Not just a person with a degree, but a decent human being who understands ethics and morals, who has empathy, and who is able to provide counseling to a crying mom. A person who is not only able to provide excellent therapy, but who also knows how to follow the rules, complete accurate paperwork, maintain a schedule, and who treats our clients like the Very Important People that they are.

A college degree is required for therapy positions at my company, and that college degree will get you through my door for an interview. Beyond that, it’s all up to the interviewee to impress me and convince me that I am looking at the right person for the job. I need to see a respectful and yet comfortable manner. I need to see eye contact. I need to see enthusiasm for your field, and the clients you want me to pay you to go see. I need to believe that you respect authority and can take corrective criticism. I would like to see confidence, and not ego. I would like someone who wants to make fifty thousand dollars a year from my company ask ME what they can do for ME instead of asking right off the bat how many vacation days they get.

My current staff is a dream team of highly qualified, incredibly experienced people who make me look good every day. It’s not their degrees that make them so wonderful; it’s their humanity, loyalty, and desire to make the world a better place that makes them such wonderful employees. These are people that volunteer their time (unpaid) to do “Children’s Day” at the local mall because they want to screen the children and they want to support the company. These are people who drop everything and help take care of each other in a crisis. These are people who offer to take more therapy visits to cover a maternity leave so that I don’t have to hire a fill in. Good people, good employees. I won’t bring someone into the company that can’t or won’t measure up.

Your college degree may get you in the door, and a great interview may put you on the short list, but I am looking for more. I am looking for letters of recommendation that don’t just tell me you were a good student (I already know that.) I am looking for recommendation letters that tell me you are a hard worker. That you get along. That you are more mature for your age than most. That you show good judgment and genuine concern for others. That there is an excellent chance that if I hire you, you will not become my “problem child” six months later.

As an owner of a business, my reputation is on the line every day. I have a responsibility to my forty employees, the four hundred plus clients we service, and the agencies that we work with and through. I have no time for liars and frauds. I have no time for “pretty princess syndrome,” “narcissism,” or selfishness. I have no time for employees who “throw other employees under the bus” or use underhanded methods to try to increase their caseload. Do you see what I’m up against?

Two of the women working in my office have no degree at all. Believe it or not, one was my bartender for karaoke night, and one was one of my children’s daycare workers. I hired them because of their work ethic, ability to deal with chaos, willingness to learn new things, the excellent customer service I had witnessed them provide, and their kindness to human beings. I figured that if that bartender could keep thirty drink orders in her head with music blaring while deciding who needed to be cut off, she could probably handle scheduling therapy appointments. I was right, she’s been there for five years or more, and I’ve never regretted my decision.

This blog is read by people all over the world in many different life circumstances. What I’m trying to across is that there is more to being a great employee than having the correct degree and certification. That will only take you so far. In our world today when the economy isn’t booming, and colleges’ graduate students every six months, the competition for prime jobs is fierce.

For you parents reading this – see the wisdom in my words. For your kids to have the greatest chance of eventually attaining a fantastic job in their field, there has to be something beyond, “Yeah I have a 3.8 and I played baseball all through high school.” Ok, my son plays baseball too, so I know that it’s a commitment, hard work, occasionally physical pain and teamwork. But, I also know that there are kids who show up every day fifteen minutes early to grab a rake and get the field ready, and kids who show up consistently three minutes late when everything is already done. It’s also been my experience that those same late kids are the first one to run to the cars after practice, while those same early kids stay to rake and cover the field. Which one is your kid?

For you students reading this – try to understand what I’m telling you. Your employer needs you to have that specialized degree, yes. They also need you to be a stellar, valuable employee, not the “caboose.” What are you planning on putting on your resume that would make me call you? What will your letters of recommendation from coaches, previous part-time employers and teachers tell me? If you aren’t sure that you have anything beyond an impressive GPA, summer is coming. Take a job, do some volunteer work, find something that helps you figure out what kind of a person you are, in addition to what kind of student you are.

A college degree can help you get ahead in this world, but truly successful people who are in demand for jobs have other things as well: personality, charm, maturity, wisdom, loyalty, work ethic, passion, compassion and often, basic human kindness.

How am I to know what traits you possess solely from a college transcript? I can’t. Show me something so that I can hire you!


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