Sam Huleatt, IntelliGrad
According to the Kauffman Foundation’s analysis of the latest US Census Bureau findings, the US labor force is in the midst of a major self-employment boom. The advent of the internet has made it increasingly easy for entrepreneurs to build and grow businesses and to find freelance and/or consulting opportunities. Data from 2004 demonstrates that 19.5 million Americans are self-employed, and their numbers are growing. Between 2003 and 2004, the number of self-employed grew by 1 million, an approximate growth rate of 4.7%. So what do these changes mean for higher education?
First it is important to remember that while innovation and start-ups have always been sexy (think back to the tech boom) the risk return ratio has traditionally been overweight with risk. In past decades when capital was more difficult to come by and the costs of business operations had yet to be commoditized by the internet, students’ dreams were often limited by capital requirements and skill expertise. However, with such user friendly technologies and companies such as GoDaddy.com and Microsoft Front Page, almost anyone can learn to build an e-commerce website. PayPal allows users to accept credit card payments at minimal cost, Skype allows users to make free phone calls, Google Maps allows anyone to locate your business.
Second, although entrepreneurs are traditionally associated with either student drop outs (Bill Gates, Michael Dell) or as recent graduates, it is increasingly common (and smart) to pursue entrepreneurship while still a student with access to all the amazing tools and relationships college campuses offer. It is an exciting time to be both a student and an entrepreneur. The phenomenon of Web 2.0 coupled with the growing movement from major companies such as AOL and Google to allow their API’s to be modified by users opens up new possibilities almost daily. Furthermore, entrepreneurship and business building is by no longer limited to MBA students or computer geeks. Entire communities have sprung up around organic foods, yoga and even youngsters teaching adults how to improve their video gaming skills. This revolution of the internet for facilitating communication and collaboration has opened up numerous markets for selling and buying not only technology, but also buying skill and expertise in any imaginable discipline.
Third, in addition to company building and new product engineering, there are also many opportunities for current college students to take advantage of ’other’ self-employment opportunities. For example, a proliferation of ’campus representative programs’ from the likes of Dell, Apple and RedBull, selling products via eBay, opportunities for research positions and more traditional waitor/waitressing positions, all have aspects of self-employment that should be addressed. Too often, both students and employers believe that their ’student status’ puts them out of reach from applicable legalities governing the self-employed.
So what is being done to encourage and teach entrepreneurship skills on campuses? Sadly, not much. In another article, Kauffman notes that of the 2,000 college and universities in the United States, about two-thirds of the total, now offer a course in entrepreneurship. However, to teach entrepreneurship most effectively often defies traditional higher academic standards. Most would agree that teaching the ’skills sets necessary to support entrepreneurship’ (whether or not entrepreneurship itself can be taught is open for debate) is best taught by an actual entrepreneur who can draw on his/her personal experience. However, this stands in contrast to the hiring practices of most colleges and universities who traditionally employ PHD academics. To get around a lack of qualifies entrepreneurs who 1) have the academic background to qualify as a tenured professor, or 2) who are willing to leave the business world for a tenured university position schools have become creative. Most entrepreneurship faculty are either adjuncts (having practical-life experience but not the academic standing required), or they are “crossovers” from other disciplines (having the standing and the research skills, but little familiarity with entrepreneurship).
Self-employed businesses currently constitute for 70% of all US businesses and generate annual receipts exceeding $887 billion. With increasing numbers and increasingly easy access to low-points of entry for business creation, colleges and universities need be more proactive in encouraging students to pursue their dream now, but also preparing them for the realities and hard skills that accompanying a foray into the business world.