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You May Be Slamming the Door on the Next Gates, Branson, or Jobs

by
Gail Miller
Mar 12, 2013, 1:06 am ET
NYU -- the largest private university in the U.S.

NYU — one of the largest private universities in the U.S.

With the astronomical jobless rate and the skyrocketing cost of four-year college, many are questioning the value and validity of a bachelor’s degree. As a proud NYU alumnus, I treasure my education and wholeheartedly believe in the relevance of the college experience. However, over the years my black-and-white viewpoint on this subject has shifted to shades of gray.

That’s why the current educational phenomenon of “degree inflation” is so disconcerting to me. Economists and educators have coined this term to describe today’s hiring climate, where a college degree has become the basic requirement for jobs that don’t actually need an advanced education. According to Burning Glass, these positions include clerks, dental hygienist, administrative assistants, and paralegals. Corporate hiring professionals often adopt strict “degree required” criteria as a means of weeding out candidates and working with a manageable number of prospects. But very often this false criteria has no bearing on someone’s ability to engage, contribute, or excel in a role.

A U.S. Department of Labor statistic reveals that 62 percent of all U.S. jobs require two-year or four-year degrees and higher. In recent years, as an agency recruiter (and former corporate recruiter), I have seen literally thousands of smart, talented, and highly experienced job candidates turned away from opportunities because they lacked a degree.

In fact, I recently sourced an amazing professional with 12 years of relevant experience and proven success. He was a better fit for the mid-level position than any of the college-educated candidates being considered, but he was excluded from the interview process because of the strict requirement regarding a college degree.

Of course, there are specific professional careers that will always call for a college degree — and in some cases, an advanced degree — including doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, accountants, therapists, and other specialists. But I am speaking of other positions — those that can be mastered with experience, skill, and training.

There are a handful of businesses that are not jumping on the “degree required” bandwagon. For example, FCi Federal, a Virginia back-office support firm for federal agencies, believes in giving high school grads equal opportunity. In five years, it has grown from a $2 million business to a $70 million firm. The CEO Sharon Virts Mozer believes college degrees are not always necessary. Ninety-five percent of her workforce has only a high school degree, yet she credits her workforce with playing a large role in the companies success. “My philosophy is that if you take an average workforce and give them a great process, you can accomplish tremendous things,” says Virts Mozer.

In 2010, University of Colorado at Boulder analyzed a variety of academic measurements and found that “CEO education does not seem to be an appropriate proxy for CEO ability.” This fact raises questions about the performance of every employee at every educational level. After all, if a CEO’s education does not affect performance, than why are the expectations so high for those holding roles beneath the CEO? Imagine slamming the door on a high-school educated applicant who is a hard-working, capable, innovative thinker — someone like Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Mary Kay, or Mrs. Fields. After all, none of these industry leaders earned college degrees. Would they be excluded from your interview process?

Furthermore, hiring professionals and employers should open their minds and their hearts and realize that … life happens! People get sick. Families experience financial hardship. Teenagers mature at different rates.

There are some very good reasons for not receiving that college degree. Why hold it against applicants? Hear their stories. Get to know them. People with relevant business experience, great recommendations, a track record of upward mobility, or just great potential should be considered.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  1. Mark Haluska

    Gail, your article is spot on. We share the same thoughts on this subject and I could not have articulated the subject any better than you did.

    Not all that long ago I saw a job posting where an employer was looking for an “hourly employee” at $ 8.50 per hour to work at one of their wine and cheese kiosks inside of a mall.

    What did the ad say ? 4 year degree REQUIRED !

  2. Irma Davidson

    I agree, especially, as you say, if the person has the experience you require, career advancement and prior success. Some companies want college degrees to ensure good writing and verbal skills but many college graduates, especially if their degrees were not in English, Marketing or some other writing-focused major, do not particularly excel in these areas.

    Some companies say they want college degrees for lower level positions so they can promote employees into higher positions. then they do not provide the training & development needed for those positions and instead want to hire external people with the existing experience they require. It’s hard out here for a recruiter!

  3. lawrence wasserman

    This is a very well written article with fantastic content. The argument that you need college degree in order to be considered for a job should be challenged. With the rising cost of education, gaining a college degree in order to advance your career is a very costly proposition. Especially since most college degrees provide little if any job-specific training. Experience should be the most valued aspect of anyone’s resume.

    Of course, there are jobs that require an advanced education in order to obtain the needed skills to perform on a particular job. However, experience and other intangible personality traits, like ambition and perseverance, go a long way in sizing up a candidate for a job.

    I agree with the author that recruiters should consider applicants who do not possess a college degree. But it is crucial to understand why that candidate didn’t get one. If cost was prohibitive but the individual was a committed student in high school, perhaps placement with a company that offers tuition reimbursement would be a great way to develop a candidate into a successful and valued employee.

    Postponing higher education and gaining on the job experience might actually be more beneficial for those looking for a job. In that type of circumstance, you might be able to determine what you don’t want to do for the rest of your life rather than wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars on an education that won’t get you where you want or need to be.

  4. Keith Halperin

    An important note: these folks FOUNDED companies, and weren’t HIRED by them. (Why would you want to hire someone who will go and found another company, anyway?)
    By and large, ifyou want a job that gives you a middle-class life style, you need a degree- whether that has anything remotely to do with the skills required to do the job is irrelevant. Furthermore, if you want a job with “an employer of choice” you probably need a degree that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.

    Are there exceptions? Yes, but not many.
    Is it right? I don’t think so.
    Is it the way things are? It is most of the time.
    Will anything change it anytime soon? I seriously doubt it.

    No Cheers,
    Keith

  5. Maureen Sharib

    What Keith says (all of it) and the other thing to add is they founded companies PROBABLY because they were unemployable themselves.

    Lesson Learned Early In Phone Sourcing:

    “Here’s a great guy but it looks like he doesn’t have a degree.”

    Them: “He needs to have a degree.”

    “Why?”

    Them: “Degrees matter. It’s not what was taught – it’s what it represents. It’s an (usually early) signal of someone who can finish something.”

    That’s what I was told, anyway.

    It seems to me a degree can be an early WARNING signal as well…but that’s another story.

  6. Keith Halperin

    @ Maureen: Well said, Mighty Mo.

    Cheers,
    Keith

  7. Ken Schmitt

    As the owner of an executive career management and recruiting firm, I am faced with the “degree dilemma” on a consistent basis. I see a large number of very qualified candidates who may lack an official degree but have gained a ton of experiences over the years. Other times, I see hiring managers looking for degreed candidates for jobs that really don’t call for one. And then there are the times when a candidate has a degree in a specific area that has no relevance to a job they are looking at.

    It’s a tricky situation for sure. I will say that I am a large proponent of degrees because of the life and subject matter experience they offer. HOWEVER, a degree rarely makes or breaks a candidate’s ability to do a job well unless the job is very technically-based, like the few you listed. In addition, after a certain amount of years of working within a field, the education someone receives in school is often obsolete. Requiring that a candidate have a degree often short-changes both the candidate and the company looking for quality people. There needs to be an opportunity for experience to outweigh schooling.
    Ken Schmitt
    http://www.turningpointsearch.net

  8. Howard Adamsky

    This is a great article. More then that, it is an important article. It speaks to the dogma that plagues and debilitates American business, culture and society.

    Sadly, little will change because it involves self reflection and assessment. As Americans, we are not very good at doing that. This wold involve business leaders to actually sit down and think. I do not see that as happening.

    As an aside, this is a good thing for HR to take up as an action item and to raise awareness. to drive it a and to champion it. Not going to happen either.

  9. Howard Adamsky

    Wow. I need to not hit the “post comment” button so fast! Next time I will edit. Oops!

  10. Anmol Singh

    Well said college degree is just an passport to enter the company premises but what actually you need the skills,experience and zeal for a job.
    If all the companies are looking for graduates then why fresh graduates are not getting direct jobs from their school.

  11. Keith Halperin

    @ Howard: well-said. We Americans are very effective coping with immediate crises, but remarkably ineffective at dealing with long-term chronic problems. We also have to deal with our two impulses toward open meritocracies (We all have an equal chance to get ahead) on the one hand and closed elites(We’ve got ours, and now we’re closing the door, so we can keep it) on the other. It seems that when things are new, open,,and dynamic we tend toward the former, but as industries and institutions evolve, we tend toward the latter. ISTM that if you want a long-term lessening of the requirement toward degrees, you need to have a tremendous, across-the-board, ongoing labot shortage…

    -kh

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