Posts Tagged ‘management’

A non-degree-holder’s view of hiring decisions

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

I get a good number of job offers without sending resumes around. I guess my name shows up in enough places, associated with enough buzzwords, that recruiters fire off emails first and read the fine print later. The “fine print” in my case, says that I do not have a college degree.

99.999% of the time, recruiters, and even hiring managers, tell me that my experience more than makes up for any lack of a formal education (one manager said he had seen many less capable MS degree holders). However, there are a few little quirks I’ve found at some larger companies. Mainly, they fall into two categories:

  1. They just plain don’t hire anyone without a degree
  2. You can’t get past a certain “tier” of employment without a degree

I’ve worked in business. I grew up in family businesses. I understand that, in certain circumstances, corporations can have legitimate reasons for these stances. Probably the only one I’ve ever actually heard myself that seemed almost reasonable is “insurance”. Some positions in some companies can have a drastic effect on things that directly affect the bottom line of that company, and if the company has insurance to protect them against extremely costly one-time errors (like E&O insurance), the insurance company might give them a better rate if they take steps to decrease the likelihood of such errors… like requiring that employees in these positions have a degree. I think it’s kind of a twisted logic, really. Instead of developing processes and procedures to reduce the likelihood of a problem, they think that hiring someone with a degree by itself will help the issue. Like degree-holders are less prone to errors due to the simple human condition. Odd, that.

Oh, and there’s a third quirk, but not with the corporate policies – with he hiring managers themselves. The quirk is that certain hiring managers, without regard for stated policy, won’t hire someone who doesn’t have a degree, presumably because they fear they might be fired for hiring someone who fails to produce because they don’t have a degree. The other possible reasoning here is that they have the attitude that “I went through it, so why should I give someone a job who hasn’t?”

The *real* problem with these hiring managers, and with corporations who have (non-insurance-related) strict educational requirements of applicants, is that that there’s a shortcoming in the business education curricula: they don’t teach the future middle managers of the world how to evaluate an applicant who doesn’t have a traditional, formal education.

This is a guess, of course, since I haven’t been to business school. But aren’t managers unwilling to hire those without formal educations also guessing? I would submit that they are. It’s the same kind of guess, too. It’s a guess based in part (maybe) on experience, and in part based on stereotypes or other preconceptions.

My experience with those who don’t, or won’t hire non-degree holders is that they think of degree-holders as “more well-rounded”. Assuming the non-degree holder hasn’t resigned themselves to a life of flipping burgers, I don’t think this could be further from the truth. It is, in fact, an old wive’s tale with no basis in fact. We were all told as kids that college would make us more “well-rounded”, and so we all worked to attain this nebulous goal. In reality, a college degree, by itself, is simply not any kind of valuable indicator of “well-roundedness”. Colleges are businesses. They produce college graduates. They do it efficiently, with an eye toward the business end of things more than anything else. If a college graduate is well-rounded, it is as much in spite of their college experience as because of it. Most well-rounded people are probably predisposed to being well-rounded, and had a tendency toward things to help them become well-rounded by the time they arrived on campus.

Besides this somewhat lame view of non-degree holders, another assumption is that non-degree holders do not have *any* education, and so *cannot* be prepared to perform the tasks that a graduate can (allegedly) perform. This argument might hold water with me if I didn’t have some idea already how resumes are typically handled by HR departments. The short story there is that there are tons of resumes that a hiring manager never sees because they’re pre-qualified (read: filtered) on the basis of educational status.

My area of expertise is technology. I don’t have a degree. It would therefore be assumed by many a hiring manager that I have no idea what Big-O notation is, don’t know anything about object delegation or polymorphism, and can’t analyze problems the same way as a college grad. The manager would be wrong on the first two counts, because while I didn’t study in college, I *did* study. But what about that third bit about analyzing problems?

I can tell you that it’s absolutely true that I do not analyze problems the same way as a college grad. What’s a real shame, though, is that a lot of managers would assume that “not the same” means “not as well”. There’s no justification for this assumption. In fact, I would argue that it *has* been the case in the past that having one rogue non-degree holder in a room full of grads can help to avoid “group think”, and help the group turn a problem sideways for another look. It is unfortunate that a degree that is supposed to help people “think outside the box” seems to put everyone in the same exact spot outside of that box, looking at it from the same exact perspective, coming to the same exact conclusion.

Finally, there is a certain class of degree-holder that I think is never a win over hiring a young, hungry rogue like myself. This class of graduate has hung their degree on the wall and decided that they no longer have any obligation to continue to keep up with new developments in their field. They code the same way they’ve always coded, use the same collection of old trusty tools, deal with technology the same way they’ve always dealt with technology, and stood more or less completely still, failing to seek out (much less embrace) new tools, techniques, languages, paradigms for getting things done. How can you possibly think outside the box when your vision of the box is 10 years old and assumes that the box is completely static?

I believe it was Nietzsche (sp?) who wrote that truth is not static (of course, I’m paraphrasing, and I might be thinking of James). If you can see yourself subscribing to that idea at all (it seems counterintuitive at first glance, but deeper thought will probably get you there), then how can a person with a notion of “truth” that is tied to their college experience be any better at figuring out what to do with it than someone who doesn’t have a degree, but is forever seeking out interesting things that come out of an ever-evolving truth?

Anyway, that’s my diatribe for the evening. If you’re a hiring manager with preconceived notions about college degree holders (or not) that come from decades of brain-hammering by graybeards, then cling to that safety blanket all you want, but know that it’s old thinking. Learn to be (gasp!) creative about how you evaluate applicants, and how you build your teams, and how you execute on your visions. Try to find the other box. The one that doesn’t look anything like it did in college.

I’m interested in hearing feedback on these ideas. I’m sure some will take offense. I don’t mean any. I’m certainly not saying that not having a degree is better, or that degree-holders are all complacent or anything like that. I *am* saying that *formal* education *can* be an irrelevant point of comparison, and that relying solely on the existence (or not) of a *formal* education as the basis for hiring one applicant over another is ludicrous.

Also, my blog is subscribed to by various sites, and I decided to publish this to all of the categories, because I think it *could* be interesting to pretty much anyone. If this is spam in your eyes, let me know. If you find a lively discussion about this going on anywhere, I’d be really interested in that as well 🙂