Working Wounded Blog: Jobs Without Degrees

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In 1989 I gave my first commencement speech at the University of Puget Sound. Even though I wasn't asked to speak to graduates this year, I decided to not let that hold me back -- I'm going to give them a speech right here.

Actually, the speech below is maybe not as much for the graduates as for the corporations that seem to value these graduates so highly -- much too highly, in my opinion. I'll them why I feel this way.

Without further ado …

Dear graduates, after wandering the halls of academe for 16 or more years, congratulations. The good news: no more homework. The bad news: say goodbye to summer. Your 10-month year is about to come to an end.

My undergraduate years were a valuable time for me. I learned how to do my own laundry, how to drink Jell-O shots, how to use a cafeteria tray as a sleigh, how to kiss with one leg on the floor, how to cram all night for a test and how to forget everything the moment that the test was over -- all helpful skills to possess, sort of.

OK, I did actually learn a few useful things along the way, too. Unfortunately, none immediately leap to mind. (Lest I seem like a total slacker, Dear Reader, what information do you remember from your college years?) And that is exactly my point. I think all graduates deserve congratulations. But this is not about you. I'm concerned that far too many corporations hold the lack of a college education against employees who want to get into management.

Just last week I talked to a woman who had run an office for two U.S. senators, been a successful entrepreneur and is currently thriving in an entirely new career. She accomplished all of this without a college degree. Yet, there are many jobs that she cannot apply for.

This isn't coming from a place of envy. I not only have a B.S. degree (a perfect description of my undergraduate years). But I also have a masters of business administration (and isn't that what the business world needs today, more administrators?). And I've served as an adjunct professor to MBA students on four separate occasions (in case you are wondering, "adjunct" is Latin for "poorly paid").

So my criticism comes from a person who has paid his dues. I've got the degrees. And I think college is a totally B.S. test for how you'll perform in today's workplace. There is nothing wrong with a college education. To use a dessert analogy, the degree is the icing, the cake is the person's other experiences, expertise and insight.

That does leave us with a problem. If we are going to level the playing field in terms of those with, and those without a college education, how will we decide who are the better people to hire? We'll have to look at each person and not use a convenient, and often inappropriate, yardstick.

A few considerations: What has the person accomplished at work? How do the people they've worked with feel about his or her contributions? Has the person traveled abroad? Has the person done volunteer work? Does he speak another language? Does she know what's going on in the world? Does the person understand your industry and its competitors? I would argue that all these are more reliable measures of what a person can contribute to your organization than a tired, old piece of sheepskin.

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