Insights into the forces shaping our industry.

Education and Hiring


One large lesson to learn from the recession is that education is a valuable attribute to making money and keeping a job. The unemployment statistics over the past 3 years have continued to reinforce that an actively engaged worker with a college education is most likely to be employed; whereas unskilled laborers with a high school diploma or less are vastly under-employed. Our search work requires a degree in the vast majority of our assignments; even when it may not appear requisite to the job function; it’s almost always required and universally desired. And yet, the definition of an education is changing.

In a recent book, ‘Academically Adrift, Limited Learning on College Campuses’ the authors report a series of studies that demonstrate that the majority of college students show no significant increase in their ability to write, demonstrate complex reasoning or critical thinking. The results also report a significant drop in the amount of time that students spend on studying (average is 27 hours a week), and a pernicious history of grade inflation that renders most grade point averages divorced from predictable assumptions of how smart or well-educated you may believe. In short, a college degree is considered a commodity to most students and they approach college as a consumer of a degree; not a quest to learn. The result is a student body that is focused on social activities who manages to garner a degree through a process of selecting easy curricula, ‘soft’ professors and minimal requirements. The amount of required reading and writing has dropped precipitously over the past 20 years. In short, a college education isn’t what it used to be.

Brick and mortar schools are now competing with virtual schools, like the University of Phoenix which offers both brick and mortar setting and virtual classes and is accredited plus a broad range of colleges who are largely unaccredited and are virtual diploma mills. The challenge for a potential employer is to discern not only what a degree means any more, but whether the credentials presented are worthy of a commensurate compensation package based upon internal equity of existing employees with degrees from more established universities. Academically Adrift does note that the upper tier of universities do provide the best results on performance of writing, critical thinking and complex reasoning. The challenge is to discern the relative quality of a 4-year degree across many variable definitions of a ‘degree’. Couple the apparent demise of education with the fact that the US is facing a very real, critical shortage of science degrees; with engineering being particularly in demand, with an immediate shortage.

There are also very interesting new education solutions such as the Khan Academy, where courses are delivered in a self-managed pace of learning and presented in a format that is described as practical and engaging. Khan Academy has received investment from the Gates Foundation and has received global acclaim for its quality of teaching and quality of results; yet it is not a degree-focused ‘academy’. It is a robust collection of technical courses that enable the student to learn varying courses from a variety of topics, from math and science to social science and liberal arts. It’s a learning site; as opposed to a goal-directed degree-granting university. So at what point does ‘learning’ become a tipping point to hire a new employee; regardless of a degree? Or better yet, in lieu of a degree? Should a well-educated engineering student, who has full command of engineering studies from a Khan Academy or similar virtual site be considered a viable candidate for a professional engineering firm, or a manufacturers’ product engineering team?

There is a small growing trend of private industry working directly with local community colleges, or even larger institutions to develop curriculum that is directly applicable to that manufacturer’s employee needs. It is a collaboration that enables a steady stream of narrowly trained students to gain employment with a local company. It looks and feels like a college athletic team functioning as a minor league for professional sports. And it works. And it makes sense; despite the fact that it is relatively narrowly focused for specific requirements. Universities have had internship requirements for many years; which allow their students to experience practical applications of their course work in summer jobs, or after-school environments. Industry working more closely with education can only be positive for all parties.

Which brings us to the real question facing employers as the economy gains strength: why do you ‘require’ a degree as a condition of employment? If the skills are such (engineering or accounting would be a good example) that the technical attributes necessitate a degree, then that’s fine. If your goal is to hire someone who can get a PE certification, then a degreed engineer requirement would make sense. But if you’re hiring a sales person or marketing or general management training recruit; why not ‘recruit’ for attributes, like intellect and attitude and devote your resources to successfully training and imbuing the new employee into your company culture?

The world is changing. The diversity of our choices is exploding. It’s time to approach talent development as talent Development.

Have a wonderful Holiday season and thank you for your contribution to the success of Egret Consulting Group. We had a near-record year in 2012; we’re expanding with two recent new employees (both with degrees, by the way) and focused on a very strong 2013. Thank you.