Can you be too Educated?

14th March 2017

Posted In: The Topic | WMB Advice

Ask anyone over 50 what they needed to apply for their first job, and more than likely it was an inter cert, or maybe a leaving cert. Over 30 and it was probably a degree. Ask a millennial, and they’ll tell you that without a masters, they don’t even make it into the slush pile on a HR manager’s desk. But is the focus on qualifications detrimental to a dynamic workforce? In a battle between rote learning and entrepreneurial thinking, is the ultimate loser the employer?

There’s a school of thought that too much education can knock the originality out of talented individuals. Most children display entrepreneurial behaviour, taking risks and coping well with ambiguity, but it’s not something many of us retain into adult life.

Orla Byrne is a lecturer in entrepreneurship at the UCD School of Business and says if she was paid for every time someone asked whether entrepreneurs are born or made, she’d be rich.

“If you believe they are born, then there is no point in training, and as someone who works in education I’m a firm believer in lifelong learning.”

Entrepreneurship can be integrated into what children are learning and taught as a skill. Byrne identifies a lack of joined-up thinking between education and enterprise here, unlike in the UK where they are integrated from an early age.

She believes employers filtering prospects on the basis of a university degree are doing so “because a degree shows competency in certain basic skills.”

“In-house training is based on people having these skills already; time management, the ability to decipher academic material and understand complex theories, good writing and presentation skills, and critical thought. It’s an easy way for employers to recruit – it’s difficult for someone without a degree to articulate how they have these skills.”

While very few of Byrne’s students will go on to start their own businesses, she says training in entrepreneurial thinking is something that can apply to any career.

Sarah Abbott, Managing Consultant at The People Practice, has worked in senior global HR leadership roles in EMC and Apple, and tries to recruit rounded individuals by looking at academic qualifications, work experience and personality when hiring, seeking above all emotional intelligence.

There can be “a considerable difference” between being smart and being educated, she points out. Ernst & Young UK, another of Abbott’s former employers, has recently removed the degree requirement from its recruitment policy.

“For some industries, having high results in a subject is a must. For others, it’s a nice to have. The availability of education and the knowledge age have firmly moved industry towards wanting academic qualifications rather than thinking if the role really needs that specific academic qualification.”

She says a lack of academic ability is not the only barrier to success within the education system, pointing out the preponderance of fee paying schools in the Sunday Independent list of top schools, and the availability of grinds to those who can pay for them, cuts out those who are economically disadvantaged. She believes also that the school system only supports a percentage of students, and can leave creative thinkers behind, and stresses the importance of extra-curricular programmes such as Coder Dojo for identifying and nurturing other forms of talent.

“For industry, it can mean that some of the most creative are missed or indeed they never reach their potential – imagine if one of those young people is the next Steve Jobs.”

Like Byrne, Abbott identifies a university degree as shorthand for proving a person has learned other skills that are useful in the workplace, beyond their specialist subject.

“Going to university can be great for teaching students life skills, so while the academic element is the priority, developing social skills is an important by-product.”

As for qualifications, she says a good HR department will examine how valuable they really are.

“It’s often useful to look at the qualifications required and ask ‘what will that qualification bring? And then post hiring – ‘did it bring what we hoped it would?’”

Those professionals who have climbed the ladder without any formal qualifications but feel the need to add to their CVs have numerous options to choose from when it comes to lifelong learning, and many companies encourage this.

Brenda Jones is SME Retention and Growth Manager at Three. With years of experience in industry at Dell, O2 and now Three, she always felt a “niggle” at having no primary degree.

“I always wondered ‘am I missing something’”, she explains. Her boss at Three had done an MBA and encouraged her to do likewise, and when the company offered to help support her, she jumped at the opportunity to cement her relationship and improve her chances at promotion.

She researched the options and decided on the Henley MBA for the sake of flexibility. Would she recommend work and study? Yes… and no.

“Now I have the experience and the qualifications – you can have experience without the qualification, but you absolutely cannot have the qualification without the experience. Having both gives you the edge. I don’t understand why people go and do a masters straight after college. I believe in experience more than ever; it’s still more important.”

Although on balance, it was worth it, Jones wouldn’t push anyone else towards an MBA unless they were firmly committed to it.

“There’s no easy way through it! There’s lots of sacrifice, you’re tired all the time, and you really have to prioritise things and decide ‘what’s mandatory here?’”

As for the lasting impact, she believes what she’s learned on the MBA has made her more efficient, and given her the ability to detach from a situation and analyse it.

“I would recommend an MBA for what you learn, but I would find it hard to recommend it to a team member, knowing what they would have to give up! I gave up two and a half years of my life. It’s worth it now for the detachment, ease of prioritising and better outputs. A lot of the time, previously, I’d have been working really hard not looking at the outputs. It’s made me strategic.”

It seems, then, that EY could be ahead of the posse in removing the degree requirement, with experience still winning over paperwork – but only just. As Sarah Abbott puts it, “Like everything in life, education is also about balance.”