August 30, 2010 HR, Thought Provoking

Education vs. Experience: The debate

I’ve drafted more job descriptions than I care to admit, and the majority of the time I beg the question “Is a degree required”?  Can experience make up for the lack of a college degree, or does formal education provide some value that experience does not? Is one more valuable than the other? Talk about a discussion that will have you chasing your tail! It’s truly a trap debate because the right answer is “it depends”.

When Captain Sullenberg lost both engines and had no power on his Airbus 320 airplane, he had to think fast.  Is it a valid argument that formal education alone could not have brought that plane down safely on the Hudson River?  Many would agree it was his many years of flying experience that allowed him to quickly assess the situation and react accordingly to bring the plane to a safe landing.  His success was the result of his level of experience.

Obviously, there are specific cases where the question is moot. If you’re looking for a surgeon, you’re probably seeking someone with the highest degree possible, plus A LOT of experience. However, the scope of positions that may or may not require a degree is broad and wide. This is true for most industries.

Frequently, the decision is based on company cultural or personal preferences. When preparing the position requisition, we want the ideal candidate, right?  Why would we settle for less? A candidate with a degree would fulfill this expectation, or would experience sufficiently outweigh the need for a degree, still resulting in an ideal outcome?  These are fair questions that may not be considered due to a number of factors including: Company hiring philosophies, personal biases or paradigms.  As a result, the hiring manager often justifies the decision to require a degree based on their experience.

Whether it’s a completely strategic discussion about your organization’s policies or a discussion involving a specific position and candidate, this issue continually resurfaces in organizations. And depending on what side of the fence you sit, this issue can be very personal and emotional. Regardless of your personal preference, my suggestion to you is to ponder some basic concepts to help you make a sound decision.

In my next Blog I am going to share certain characteristics employers typically associate with someone who has a college degree as well as those characteristic that employers may be missing out on, when disregarding business success and work experience.