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A reckless train of thought

Jason Coleman | Wednesday, February 3, 2010

I was standing in the line at the Café Commons (the café in the business school) the other afternoon, jockeying for position between the checkout line, the coffee line and the sandwich line. After giving up on finding the right line, and embarrassingly bumping into a bunch of kids with my backpack, I surrendered and ran away. I could only think of one thing: how can a top business school run such a hectic, poorly designed coffee and sandwich joint? Waddick’s, that bastion of liberal art impracticality, runs relatively more efficiently and still offers delicious breakfast sandwiches.

This led me to consider what I had learned in Mendoza in all of my required classes from business ethics to strategic management and corporate finance. As an accounting major, much to my professors’ delight, I could definitely set up a decent little cost accounting system to ensure that overheads were properly considered. I could handle the bookkeeping aspects. However, when it comes to the nuts and bolts of setting the business up, designing floor plans or sandwich bars for efficiency, all I have to fall back on is 1.5 credits of “process analysis,” a half semester course that barely touches on ways to consider managing actual management of a business, from the floor, not from behind a computer. Could I even run the café commons?

I started to think about how many of my fellow students I knew that were looking to graduate on to become corporate managers in manufacturing companies (such as Coca-Cola), and came up with less than one off the top of my head. I’m talking about the people that get on the floor and help build products that people want. Most everybody I know is going into some service oriented job such as consulting, accounting or banking.
Maybe, I thought, the issue here isn’t Mendoza, or even Notre Dame, but some sort of America problem. That is, all of the students that go to school to learn business skills don’t actually want to sell anything to anybody, beyond their own knowledge as a consultant or banker. This could be an issue, as these knowledge sellers must have a customer who sells something real to consult, finance, etc. Private equity couldn’t oust CEOs and managers if there are no CEOs left.

What then is America’s manufacturing advantage? Where would aspiring industrial giants go? We fell behind the Japanese in automobiles years ago. The Chinese are ripping us up in selling clean energy technology. With Inbev’s purchase of Anheuser-Busch, the Belle’s are killing us. We lost beer!

What if there is some sort of business person equilibrium? There should be some point where there are enough consultants to handle other industries’ consulting needs, and there are enough banks to finance all of the IPO’s necessary. Are we close? What happens if we can only continue to churn out mutual fund managers and hedge fund operators? Do we become the financial service providers to the world?

It seems this stark imbalance of graduates selling services over those selling products can only continue as long as we have some knowledge advantage over other countries. That is to say, we have some business knowledge edge that keeps us in demand above other countries’ graduates. We have a gem of an education system, and one that does in fact give us that edge. But other countries’ are on the rise! Global competition is getting stiffer and stiffer for financier positions, are we continuing to become sharper and more astute?

Oh man, I thought, this looks bad. I couldn’t really handle any more. My logic started twisting onto itself, and my knees went slightly wobbly. Maybe I extrapolated a little too much from this sandwich shop incident. But I still can’t help but feel unnerved when I see the Café Commons swamped with students standing en masse trying to get a bite to eat. I only wish I had been required to take future issues, the new course that allegedly would give me special sight into the future. Perhaps, then, my mind could be put to ease.


Jason Coleman is a senior accounting major. He can be contacted at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not
necessarily those of The Observer.