Degree of Relevance

Not long ago a friend updated me on his job search. Although he has years of experience in his field he felt he'd missed more than one opportunity because he doesn't have a degree.

The other day I was speaking with a client in a talent assessment. One person rated highly until we got to future promotability and they said, well, she doesn't have a degree.

Yet, at the same time others roles have no need for a degree. Developers anyone? Sales?

And in some technical areas a degree over five years old is of limited value if the underlying technology is radically changing. Mechanical engineering may be static: nano-technology not so much.

So the use/requirement of a college degree is inconsistent at best. We need the flexibility to interpret the need for degrees in different ways.

Degrees are proxies

Insisting on a college degree despite the standard rhetoric of “commensurate experience” in a job description is a proxy. Its a convenient way to reduce the field of candidates so we don't have to do the work ourselves. That's called screening.

Its easy.

Requiring a degree as a condition of employment is also a potential violation of Title VII.

Setting minimum qualifying standards for employment is an important part of our role. Make sure these standards actually matter though. In recruiter parlance, the list of “gotta haves” and “nice-to-haves” should be real.

And reserve the right to use judgement – that indescribable essence HR people are really paid for – when assessing degree relevance and work experience.

What's in a name

Degrees aren't always meaningful. Do we care about a degree when looking for someone with Ruby on Rails experience? How then do we verify their skill set?

We contact past clients.

Especially in freelance roles verification of past work experience is the only thing we care about. Yet, we could verify experience for employment candidates too regardless of degree status if the work itself was really paramount.

Finally, degree relevance can't be discussed without acknowledging the explosion of non-traditional degrees. Are they real, relevant, worthwhile? I know: that's a headache. Now, we've got to assess the value of degrees from institutions we've never heard of. It takes time. It takes work.

The prejudice holds that if a degree is through an online experience, or perhaps worse, from a for-profit school its not as valuable as say Harvard. I agree. There's a a difference. How much? I don't know.

The difference probably has more to do with the person than the institution.

Its messy

Life isn't neat and clean. Its a hell of a lot of fun for the most part, but not so neat. In employing people degree-value and relatedness is one of the biggest challenges we have to address.

The bottom-line is to make degree requirements relevant and sensible. Defaulting to any standard without thinking about it may be easier, but its not applied intelligence.

Employees look for intelligence in employers as much as the other way around.

Whether we're degreed or not.



3 thoughts on “Degree of Relevance

  1. Christopher,

    It was so refreshing to read your spot-on commentary about how using degrees as a deal-breaker for hiring can become a sure-fire way to miss selecting a best-fit candidate. An academic degree is an important achievement, for sure. It demonstrates a candidate’s ability to learn, meet expectations, and commit to a result. It is not a singular measure of how successful someone will be in a job. There’s a whole lot more to that as you know.

    Years ago, I had an effective and highly respected manager on my team who had a high school diploma but no college degree. That was tough on a guy working among lots of engineers. When he had to hire someone for his staff, he over-compensated by selecting a man with a PhD but no demonstrated experience for the job. That hire was a disaster.

    Like you, I’ve sat in hiring meetings where managers would immediately eliminate candidates without the minimum degree written on the posting. Overlooking real, tested experience didn’t seem to enter into their thinking, when that was what was relevant.

    So thanks for taking the time to write this powerful post and to keep this issue front and center.

    All the best,

    • Thank you for your powerful commentary Dawn. I’m all for education and believe in the power of lifelong learning. That said I try to be careful about applying more – or less – value to a degree than is warranted by the position. Thanks again for writing Dawn: I so appreciate your thoughts and the time you took to share them…

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