Degrees of Experience: The Upside of Non-Grads

Michael Carrillo Co-Founder/President

Not long ago, ads for sales and marketing executives used to ask for a college degree “or equivalent experience.” No longer. Today, bachelor’s degrees are a minimum requirement for almost any sales or management job, and advanced degrees are increasingly demanded for even mid-level positions.

But few hiring authorities or HR professionals stop to ask themselves if this trend is good for business or producing a better trained and more diverse workforce. “We are losing valuable experience by automatically rejecting non-college graduates,” says Michael Carrillo of CPGjobs. “The career track that used to promote the route driver, mail clerk or administrative assistant to management has virtually disappeared.”

Famous Non-Grads

While the stigma “college drop out” is powerful, so is the countervailing reality that non-college graduates are often extraordinary achievers. Bill Gates of Microsoft, David Geffen of DreamWorks SKG, Steve Jobs of Apple, Lawrence Ellison of Oracle, Michael Dell of Dell Computers, Wayne Huizenga of Blockbuster and Ted Turner of Time Warner are just a few of the brilliant executives who never completed college.

The irony is that if any of these successful executives were to apply for work in today’s hiring environment, most HR departments wouldn’t even give them a call; standard operating procedure would automatically screen them out.

Non-graduates made redundant by mergers often find themselves the first to be laid off and have difficulty finding work matching their experience. But the real losers are employers, Carrillo says.

“A college degree implies knowledge, but equivalent work experience is even more valuable because it is gained in the real world,” Carrillo says. “No one disputes the value of a degree, but it’s short-sighted to automatically screen out candidates who have not finished college.”

It also raises the issue of diversity. “College is increasingly expensive, so many underprivileged individuals may lack a full or advanced degree,” he says. “Instead of rejecting them, companies should value their real-world experience and the fresh insight it can bring to decision-making.”

Among the things Carrillo recommends that employers look for in any candidate is a genuine record of achievement, whether in college or in the workforce. “It is wise to question candidates closely on both to determine the actual relevance of their education and work experience to the job being filled.”

“Everyone wants an MBA from a top university and 5 years of relevant career experience,” Carrillo observes. “But a non-graduate with 15 years experience might do a better job than someone who skated through college,” he says.

Because of the prejudice against them, non-graduates almost always have to be smarter and work harder to get where they are, Carrillo says. And because no one understands their handicap better than they, non-graduates are often extraordinarily stable and loyal employees.

A number of HR professionals agree with Carrillo’s assessment. “I’m looking for a manager, and in my recruitment ad I specifically said ‘two years of college or equivalent experience,’” says one hirer interviewed by the Tampa Tribune. “I left a loophole for applicants without degrees because I don’t want to take the chance of missing a diamond in the rough.”

Unintended Consequences

The obsession with diplomas has had unintended consequences. More candidates are misrepresenting their education or using “diploma mills” to gain phony degrees. More than 300 such institutions now exist, and unaccredited “universities” have become a $200 million a year industry.

“The irony of this is that honest non-graduates are automatically rejected while phony degrees are frequently not checked at all,” Carrillo says. “Of course no one should hire anyone who resorts to this tactic – all degrees should be checked. But it does demonstrate how skewed the hiring process has become.”

The best path, Carrillo says, is to return to the old system of considering equivalent experience in place of college diplomas. As for job seekers, they should continue their education for as long as they work, whether they have finished their degree or not. “Formal education is good thing,” he says. “It’s just not the only thing.”

Michael Carrillo is president of CPGjobs, the CPG industry’s leading candidate recruiting service for HR professionals and employers. You may contact him at Michael@CPGjobs.com or call (626) 535-0143.

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