Asalto En Wall Street Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is a critical skill for young workers these days.

What that means, though—and how to measure it—is less clear. Employers complain that colleges are not producing graduates who can solve problems and connect the dots on complex issues, but bosses stumble when pressed to describe exactly what skills make critical thinkers. That leaves job seekers wondering what employers really want and, once on the job, unsure of whether they’re supposed to follow the rules or break them.

Mentions of critical thinking in job postings have doubled since 2009, according to an analysis by career-search site Indeed.com. The site, which combs job ads from several sources, found last week that more than 21,000 health-care and 6,700 management postings contained some reference to the skill.

“It’s one of those words—like diversity was, like big data is—where everyone talks about it but there are 50 different ways to define it,” says Dan Black, Americas director of recruiting at the accounting firm and consultancy EY.

Brittany Holloway, a music-business major who graduated last spring from New York University, says critical thinking appeared in so many postings during her job search that it, along with traits like “detail-oriented” and “organized,” was nearly meaningless. Only in interviews could she tell what a company meant when it sought those traits.

Ms. Holloway, who now works as a content-review and fraud specialist at Brooklyn-based digital-music distributor TuneCore, defines the skill as “forming your own opinion from a variety of different sources.”

Ms. Holloway, 21 years old, says her current job requires her to think critically when screening music releases before they’re sent to digital stores like Apple Inc.’s iTunes.

Behavioral interview prompts, such as “Talk about how you handled working with a difficult person,” help EY bosses assess critical-thinking skills, says Mr. Black. (His definition: “The ability to work with data, to accumulate it, analyze it [and] synthesize it, in order to make balanced assessments and smart decisions.”)

In late-round interviews, candidates must show how they would tackle business problems, such as whether it makes more sense for a company to make or buy a product, and why.

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. asks investment-banking and sales-and-trading candidates to assess company valuations and stock pitches and then to explain how they arrived at their conclusions.

By the end of one of those exercises, “the candidates should have displayed whether they possess critical thinking,” says Michael Desmarais, global head of recruiting for the bank.

Critical thinking may be similar to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous threshold for obscenity: You know it when you see it, says Jerry Houser, associate dean and director of career services at Willamette University in Salem, Ore.

When recruiters tell Mr. Houser they want students with problem-solving skills, “that usually has something to do with critical thinking,” he says. His office encourages students to prepare stories to illustrate their critical-thinking prowess, detailing, for example, the steps a club president took to improve attendance at weekly meetings.

Colleges’ capacity to mold thinkers has been a topic of heated debate. Richard Arum, co-author of “Academically Adrift” and “Aspiring Adults Adrift” as well as an NYU sociology professor, is a prominent critic of how schools are faring on that front.

“Schools have institutionally supported and encouraged [a] retreat from academic standards and rigor,” he says, adding that he thinks colleges have allowed students to focus on their social lives at the expense of academic pursuits.

According to research detailed in those books, students rarely study on their own for more than an hour a day, and most don’t write in-depth papers that require sustained analysis.

For their part, students seem to think they are ready for the office. But their future bosses tend to disagree. A Harris Interactive survey of 2,001 U.S. college students and 1,000 hiring managers last fall found that 69% of students felt they were “very or completely prepared” for problem-solving tasks in the workplace, while fewer than half of the employers agreed.

Judy Nagengast, CEO of Continental Inc., an Anderson, Ind., staffing firm, says she has come across young graduates who “can memorize and they can regurgitate” but who struggle to turn book learning into problem solving at work.

Ms. Nagengast says she grew frustrated with young accountants who didn’t understand the importance of accuracy on tax forms and filed “B-minus financial statements.” She wants and needs to recruit young workers, though, and she is testing the waters with a fresh graduate who’s handling the firm’s compliance with the Affordable Care Act.

Linda Elder, an educational psychologist and the president of the Foundation for Critical Thinking, which promotes educational reform, says employers really want well-trained problem solvers and not critical thinkers, especially in the lower ranks. Critical thinkers, she says, tend to challenge the status quo, which isn’t always what a boss is after.

At Goldman, “we don’t expect new hires to propose changes to our chairman or board on a firm-wide strategy level on Day One,” says Mr. Desmarais. But the bank’s entry-level hires are expected to do more than just fulfill orders, he adds. “We do encourage our junior people to recommend changes.”

Write to Melissa Korn at melissa.korn@wsj.com

Some Definitions of Critical Thinking

  • “The ability to cross-examine evidence and logical argument. To sift through all the noise.”
    -Richard Arum, New York University sociology professor
  • “Thinking about your thinking, while you’re thinking, in order to improve your thinking.”
    -Linda Elder, educational psychologist; president, Foundation for Critical Thinking
  • “Do they make use of information that’s available in their journey to arrive at a conclusion or decision? How do they make use of that?”
    -Michael Desmarais, global head of recruiting, Goldman Sachs Group

He added that he was disappointed that members of Congress from New York, especially Senator Charles E. Schumer and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, had not come out swinging for an industry that donates heavily to their campaigns. “They need to understand who their constituency is,” he said.

Generally, bankers dismiss the protesters as gullible and unsophisticated. Not many are willing to say this out loud, for fear of drawing public ire — or the masses to their doorsteps. “Anybody who dismisses them publicly is putting a bull’s-eye on their back,” the hedge fund manager said.

John Paulson, the hedge fund titan who made billions in the financial crisis by betting against the subprime mortgage market, has been the exception. His Upper East Side home was picketed by demonstrators earlier this week, but Mr. Paulson offered a full-throated defense of the Street, even going so far as to defend the tiny sliver of top earners attacked by the Occupy Wall Street protesters — whose signs refer to themselves as “the other 99 percent.”

“The top 1 percent of New Yorkers pay over 40 percent of all income taxes, providing huge benefits to everyone in our city and state,” he said in a statement. “Paulson & Company and its employees have paid hundreds of millions in New York City and New York State taxes in recent years and have created over 100 high-paying jobs in New York City since its formation.”

The messages coming from the protesters are by no means in accord. They have myriad grievances, though many see Wall Street as the most powerful symbol of the income inequality and “economic injustice” they are railing against. There is ample indignation over banks being bailed out while their customers are being foreclosed upon, and over banks handing out hefty bonus checks and severance packages so soon after the crisis erupted. 

Similarly, executives keep getting generous payouts when they leave. Just last week, Bank of America disclosed it was paying a total of $11 million in severance to two executives forced out in a management reshuffle, Sallie Krawcheck and Joe Price, even as the company said it would begin laying off roughly 30,000 employees over the next few years.

“Wall Street continues to underestimate the degree of anger among citizens and voters,” said Douglas J. Elliott, a former investment banker who is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution. For the most part, bankers say that they see the protests as a reaction to the high unemployment and slow growth that has plagued the American economy since the recession and the financial crisis of 2008. Despite all the placards and chants plainly indicating otherwise, some bankers suggest that deep down, the protesters are not really all that mad at them.

“I don’t think we see ourselves as the target,” said Steve Bartlett, president of the Financial Services Roundtable, which represents the nation’s biggest banks and insurers in Washington. “I think they’re protesting about the economy. What’s lost is that the financial services sector has to be well capitalized and well financed for the economy to recover.”

Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase & Company, typifies the conflicting messages coming from Wall Street. In a conference call with reporters after third-quarter earnings were announced Thursday, he struck a sympathetic note. “I do vaguely remember the First Amendment that it is legal to demonstrate and it is completely fine,” he said. “You should listen and not just have a knee-jerk reaction.”

But in a later conference call with analysts, Mr. Dimon’s remarks were more offhand when asked about the protests and the negative perception of his industry. “Most of our clients like us,” he said. Besides, changing the industry’s image now is a tall order, he told the analysts, before adding, “If you have any great ideas on the phone you guys can write them up and send them to me. We’ll take them into consideration.” Without a coherent message, the crowds will ultimately thin out, Wall Street types insist — especially when the weather turns colder. They see the protesters as an entertaining sideshow, little more than flash mobs of slackers, seeking to lock arms with Kanye West or get a whiff of the antiestablishment politics that defined their parents’ generation.

“There is a view that it will be a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing,” said one financial industry official.

Most bankers were far more concerned this week about the business impact of the new Volcker Rule restrictions on speculative trading than they were about the demonstrations, this official added.

A smaller group of bank executives are taking the protests more seriously. They see them as a sign of the growing economic divide in this country — and are even monitoring the latest developments on Twitter. While peaceful so far, the demonstrations at Bank of America, Chase and Wells Fargo branches from San Francisco to Peoria are eerily similar to those routinely seen at Citibank outposts in Athens, Hong Kong, and in other overseas markets. Some believe it could be years before the swarms of protesters end their marches on bank branches.

A few outspoken members of the financial industry have broken ranks with their more skeptical brethren to say they understand a bit of the outrage of the Occupy Wall Street crowd.

“When I tell people I went down to research the protests, they’re shocked, they literally laugh,” said Michael Mayo, a veteran bank analyst at Crédit Agricole Securities. “It’s just not a location they frequent.”

Citigroup’s chief executive, Vikram S. Pandit, even said he would be happy to talk with the protesters any time they wanted to drop by. Mr. Pandit, onstage Wednesday at a Fortune magazine conference, said that the protesters’ “sentiments were completely understandable.”

“I would also corroborate that trust has been broken between financial institutions and the citizens of the U.S., and that it’s Wall Street’s job to reach out to Main Street and rebuild that trust,” Mr. Pandit said. The protesters should hold Citi and others “accountable for practicing responsible finance,” he said, “and keep asking us about how we’re doing.”

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