September 1, 2010 HR, Thought Provoking

Education vs. Experience: What does the job really need!

The debate about education vs. experience has been around for years.  As I re-read this week’s earlier blog, I want to make it clear that I am not advocating not getting a degree.  My family is filled with degrees, the higher education the better and it is certainly what we have ingrained in our children.  But I can’t help seeing everywhere I go the value of experienced people who may not have a degree being overlooked, and the value they can bring to organizations.

There is a unique opportunity, with the market providing a large pool of available candidates, with and without degrees for employers to explore all qualities of candidates including education, knowledge, skill set and experience to bring a valuable and much-needed balance of talent to your organization.

Let’s examine why employers prefer college degrees. Most often, they associate the following characteristics with people who have degrees (and more specifically, four-year degrees):

  • A proven ability to analyze problems, conduct research and produce solutions
  • A proven ability to learn complex, difficult subject matter
  • Motivation and high energy
  • High Intelligence
  • Credible qualifications

While it’s difficult to argue that these characteristics are consistent with people who have earned a four-year degree, it’s easy to question whether or not these characteristics are exclusive to that group. This is the root of my confusion with employers as they define job requirements. There is nothing wrong with requiring a four-year degree if that’s what the job requires. But, if that requirement is based on a “that’s how it’s always been” mentality, or a personal bias, your company is probably missing out on a large pool of candidates.

The field of Quality Assurance for example is susceptible to this pitfall. The fact is that there is no accredited engineering program that produces a “Quality Assurance Engineer”. You can get a degree in many different engineering areas. However, you can’t get one in quality assurance engineering, at least not yet. Many of the job descriptions I see for “quality assurance” don’t justify the degree. The requirement is usually there because the position is within the software, technical or engineering department or because of a preconceived notion that only someone within technical degree can perform these duties. Much of the time, I believe the position could be renamed “Quality Assurance specialist” and be filled by someone with applicable experience and associated competencies.

Let’s examine the list of characteristics of experienced business professionals that typically aren’t found in college graduates without experience or limited experience. 

  • Business insight
  • Customer Following
  • Industry Knowledge
  • Demonstrated work Ethic
  • Proven skill set
  • Practical knowledge
  • Applicable experience
  • Effective interpersonal skills

So all I am saying is, take the time to properly identify and develop the required behaviors, knowledge, skills and abilities before completing the job description. Ask yourself whether or not these required competencies can only be obtained through the process of earning a degree or if they can be acquired through experiences.  At minimum, you’ll learn more about the job requirements and better understand how you see this position fitting within your organization.