Ian Bloom, you skipped the key word: liberal arts. Actually for regular jobs like REI, I'd consider any focused degree a negative, not a positive, in other words, someone from MIT's advanced computer learning centers is unlikely to stay around very long, or someone with a law degree, or whatever, and if they are looking for a job at REI something is probably not right in this picture. The qualities you listed were precisely why I made that criteria, though leadership was irrelevant in that case. There's actually a major not to be named by me midwest firm with a huge website that hires based on similar criteria, ie, they don't care at all if you are a computer science person, they prefer very smart liberal arts students, better thinking skills, better general openmindedness, they just train them to do what they need. You're a bit quick to discount the preselection value of something that only 30% of americans accomplish, even if it has become uselessly generic. Depends on the job, if I was hiring a sewer, for example, or gear designer, the last thing I'd look for would liberal arts degree, I'd look for real world demonstrated skills and achievements, nothing theoretical, but that's not REI, you're selling mostly average stuff to weekend people or just regular yuppies who like walking around in expensive patagonia, or cheaper rei branded, gear..
However, I was talking to a woman last night who reminded me, she is about to send her son off to college, that there has been a major change in our school system, deep, and profound, over the last 20 years or so: you could go to school and get a degree with very little money in the past, up about the early 90s. Now you cannot do that, you need to be spending multiple 10s of thousands for public universities here, so the debt you'd have to take on makes it a much worse proposition as a business practice, or even as a general idea, so the type of person who has that now may have changed, almost certainly has. That's 'progress' and short term thinking in its finest US style for you, of course...
However, what I was talking about was not theoretical, I hired a lot of people, and that's what I ended up using as my main criteria, and it worked really well, consistently, over years. These weren't life time career jobs, so there were differences between that and REI. College however does do some actual things, which non college educated people sometimes simply are not aware of, one of them is to learn on demand, another is to generate reports etc, on demand. Not perfect, but given the generally pathetic US educational levels, it may matter more than you think.
I think if I were to try to get into somewhere like REI, I'd find one or two people in the sections I liked, on a slow day, and try to talk to them, you can fake it a bit by asking them some stuff one day then coming back another if they are there, though scheduling there makes it hard to know where or when someone will be around. But talking to a person you find you can relate with and asking them what they think it would take to get a job, that's worth a lot more than bugging a possibly overworked and harried manager, who probably doesn't even do the hiring in the first place. Not sure how REI does their hiring, but I wouldn't guess, I'd just ask someone who works there.
I know the times I've been to my local REI, there are no young people working there. The age is growing too, that could reflect declining overall sales volumes, hard to say.
But your basic point is right, your job in rei is to roughly know the gear, and to be able to answer questions about it, it's not to sell UL concept, or bushcraft concepts, though they do have in my local one paid weekends that teach 'ul' techniques, but what they could actually teach as REI affiliated instructors is beyond me, almost no gear you'd use is available at REI in the first place, so that is already pretty questionable.
Why tone down the snark, this is chaff, we all already know who we want to hike with or not hike with after all, which I have been informed, is in the end the real reason to post in/ read chaff... certainly works well I have to say.
However, no matter what, anything is better than reading or posting in rog's chaff ramblings, so why not snark a bit for good times?