“Promotion Jobs”

(I came across this while going through some old Photon Courier posts…originally from 2005)

I recently read The U-Boat Peril, by Captain Reginald Whinney, RN, a British destroyer commander during WWII. In the late 1920s, Capt Whinney attended the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth. He was not very impressed with the place, and his retrospective analysis is interesting:

What was really wrong with Dartmouth then? Well, my answer is cynical. The jobs of captain in command of the college and of his second-in-command, the commander, were ‘promotion jobs’; and, in those days, the incumbent in a promotion job had only to do the same as his predecessor had done and he could hardly fail to be promoted. Further, these same captains and commanders had, while at Dartmouth…usually themselves been Cadet Captains. What was good enough for them…The requirement was to keep the sausage machine going.

I have no idea how accurate Capt Whinney’s assessment of Dartmouth is…surely, they must have been doing something right, given the Royal Navy’s performance in the war. But his analysis of the “promotion job” is an interesting one, with its applicability by no means limited to military organizations.

It’s almost tautological…if you put people in jobs where all they have to do to get promoted is to remain in the job for a few years, then they are unlikely to do anything but remain in the job for a few years. You’re certainly unlikely to see much in the way of innovation or of risk-taking behavior.

So, if you are an executive, you might ask yourself whether your organization includes anything that looks like a “promotion job”–and, if so, restructure it; that is, unless you actually like drones and time-servers as subordinate managers.

And what about the realm of education? It strikes me that, as things are now, the role of being a college student has been largely structured as a “promotion job.” The student is incented to go through his 4 years or more, avoid taking any classes that might be difficult enough to unduly threaten his GPA, and avoid antagonizing any faculty members in a way that might harm the GPA or the letters of recommendation. Because the objective is, too often, not to accomplish things during the time spent on the job (in this case, to learn things), but rather to spend the requisite amount of time so that the much-desired certification can be obtained. That’s a “promotion job” in Whinney’s sense.

This is less true, of course, in the hard sciences and in engineering, where it’s obvious that after graduation you’re actually going to need to know what Young’s Modulus is (or whatever)…but across wide swaths of American higher education, the concept of the “promotion job” seems highly applicable.

8 thoughts on ““Promotion Jobs””

  1. Yes. And add to “avoid antagonizing”: avoid doing anything that might antagonize the school administration, because that can get you blackballed from other schools and future employment.

  2. I recently heard a guy with two PhD’s say, “In school, tell ’em what they want hear. You can’t win that fight.”

  3. These days I don’t know if sociology majors have a job waiting

    If I were 20 again I think I would have taken a different path.

    Electrical engineering?

  4. I worry these days about our military and recent promotions and forced retirement purges based on political correctness considerations.

    While promotion jobs in the military has always a problem, seems much bigger issue these days with our President. Suspect we are losing core competence to wage war.

  5. Electrical engineering?

    Any of the engineering disciplines are good majors. Petroleum, Chemical, Mechanical, and electrical are the best paid.

  6. I told a son of a friend that he should think about Petroleum Engineering last year and that he should think about a job as a roughneck on a rig for a summer job. I think he took at least part of the advice.

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