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November 25, 2002
College Degree Myth
by J. Christopher Sprehe, President

Like all executive recruiters, our firm receives written job descriptions from our clients at the initiation of any search engagement. However, due to the minimum salary level that we establish to undertake a search assignment ($60,000), it is rare that employers do not stipulate completion of a college degree as one of the necessary requirements.

Forbes magazine annually lists the 400 richest Americans, with a special category reserved for those super-wealthy individuals, including Bill Gates, who somehow managed to succeed without the benefits of a college, or post-graduate degree. These highly motivated executives thrive throughout our society. We recently submitted an extremely qualified candidate to one of our clients in the mortgage industry. This position carried a base salary up to $150,000, with bonus potential to match that figure, and required that the hired executive have at least 15-20 years of proven operations and staff management experience with a major competitor. Alas, our candidate lacked completion of his degree (his major was Aeronautical Engineering), and was therefore immediately "knocked out of the box" for this particular senior management position, although he currently earned the quoted base salary.

There are many valid reasons why individuals do not start, or complete a college education, including:

  • Lack of Financial Resources
  • Marriage and Family Obligations
  • Support of Aged Parents
  • Military Service
Certain professions and trades often require specialized aptitudes and skills not taught in the typical college curriculum; computer programming comes to mind. Yet many of these non-degreed individuals eventually rise through the ranks of middle/upper management over a long and success career. If hiring managers would reflect on their own college education, most would be hard-pressed to recall any meaningful learned body-of-knowledge that later assisted them in their business career. Obviously, this does not apply to certain professions, such as medicine or engineering, but for the vast majority of men and women achieving a BS or BA degree, what do the 120+ hours of college credit really represent?

Despite our present gloomy economy, the continuing terrorism threat, and potential war with Iraq, there is a growing labor shortage, which our nation is not addressing in any meaningful way. The Aspen Institute, a highly-respected "think tank" composed of top academic, business and government leaders, recently published an alarming report, entitled: "Grow Faster Together or Grow Slowly Apart". In this study, the group projects a critical shortage of workers over the next 20 years, particularly in areas requiring higher education, and trade skills, as the enormous workforce of baby-boomers retires. This vast group of workers were more numerous than their ancestors, and better educated. They are being replaced by less-numerous children, who are clearly not better educated by almost any recognized standard. The end result will be a growing, but "hidden" future labor crisis.

NOTE TO HIRING MANAGERS: In the coming months/years, you would be well advised to alter your hiring habits, by giving more weight to candidates’ practical skills and experience, as compared to academic credentials. Wherever possible, re-write that job position description to read: "degree or equivalent work experience". You cannot afford to allow talented personnel to be hired by your competitors due to outmoded hiring practices.


  About the Author
J. Christopher Sprehe, President of Christoper Group Executive Search
Chris has been a licensed real estate broker for over 25 years, and served as a divisional vice president for Coldwell Banker Residential. In 1985, he established a specialized executive search practice, focusing exclusively on the placement of experienced real estate and mortgage professionals, on a national scale. A representative client list and typical search engagements can be viewed at the website.

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