The school of hard knocks.

For the longest time in retail, I worked with people who described their formal education this way. The list included most produce managers, produce buyers, territory supervisors, a few store managers and even several produce directors. All alumni of the hard-knock academy.

Nothing wrong with that. Most of these SHK grads were self-made, business-savvy and among the most intelligent people I know.

They were successful too, to, um, a degree.

I bring this up only because I speak to some young produce managers on occasion. They see the next level of jobs in produce: middle management, marketing opportunities, or supply-side jobs they find interesting. These produce managers come right out and ask, “How could a person like me reach that next level?”

With another school year beginning, I’m compelled to answer the question with one of my own. “How badly do you want it?”

Not to demean all the people from the school of hard knocks (among which I counted myself for much of my career, and again saw many people succeed). 

However, there’s no corresponding SHK check-box on a job application. You either have a college degree under your belt, or you don’t.

And if you don’t, unfortunately your application to the next level position is rarely accepted. Even with the job requirement which states “... or equivalent years of experience,” this will more often be overlooked in favor of the applicant who has the extra schooling.

That’s the knock on the school of hard knocks.

Not to mention, once inside an organization the college grad is likely going to earn more, get promoted over the SHK employee, even be retained when things get tough and some people get laid off.

That’s why, 10 years ago this summer (and after several years of night classes) I earned a bachelor of science degree in business management. My more-learned pals called it the “old man school” but it didn’t matter. It was recognized, accredited, and absolutely helped me qualify for a better job.

Going back to school was also a real eye-opener.

I admit I had a lot of misconceptions going in. After all, I had already worked in management for decades — what could formal education possibly add to this SHK guy? Plenty. It helped shore up my many weak points (much more than I thought), expanded my vision, critical thinking, compelled me to be a better speaker — and lifelong learner.

My favorite part of this period of my life was afterward when my 20-something-year-old son approached me one day and announced, “Dad, I can’t work and go to school at the same time.”

I replied calmly, “Really? I did it.”

Armand Lobato works for the Idaho Potato Commission. His 40 years’ experience in the produce business span a range of foodservice and retail positions. E-mail him at E-mail him [email protected].


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