Career Insight: Experience vs. Education

Finding just the right mix of employees is one of the toughest and most crucial parts of running a successful business. We worry about cultural fit and previous experience in a similar field. We rate each applicant against one another. We look for the best of the best and use the typical markers of success to do it — a prestigious master’s degree or PhD, connections to all the right people, prizewinners and benevolent volunteers. And more recently, we have all heard ‘hire for attitude, train for skill.’ It’s all very logical: hire people you like, people you feel comfortable with, people who are bound to fit in. Everyone is smart, accomplished, and no one rocks the boat.

The problem? Likeability. Comfort. Classic attributes of success. These are not the building blocks of great innovation; merely the foundation to maintain the status quo. Innovation stems from the boat rockers. The people you may not understand, but respect. The ones who will argue your long-held perspectives about the world. The ones who will make you feel uncomfortable. The ones you aren’t really sure how to place or evaluate.

So the question becomes: how do we hire the right people when innovation is a primary objective? We begin to reevaluate the very value of traditional education versus unique life experiences, and think differently about the types of training that prepare the most innovative people for success. We begin to reimagine the very image of who is fit to drive business forward, and what it means to be an effective team member and leader.

And now might be the perfect time to do just that. We’ve seen the headlines grow in popularity over the last few years: a college degree is not a sure bet to employment success. Even post-graduate degrees, with their skyrocketing costs, high timeline investments, and over-population are a gamble. And while we see some students opting for alternative paths forward, there is hardly consensus on which alternative plan is best, leaving students to forge into the unknown, blind. While we have to become more comfortable with the idea that there is no simple replacement strategy here, possibly forgoing the notion of absolute employability, there is surely a new normal here waiting to emerge. But first, there has to be a way to evaluate the value of those unique paths, the special snowflakes, and the time spent outside of a classroom.

When we bring both perspectives together — that of the students and the employers — we begin to understand that the traditional education system just isn’t producing the employees we need. Students are primed and ready to take a leap of faith and try something new. If college is risky, why not save some time and money, grab your passport and do something different? Why not stop evaluating unique experiences as a resume-bolstering technique, but think more seriously about how it could replace that college degree altogether?

There, however, remains a missing piece of this puzzle. This approach shakes the very foundation of business — one that was built on the promise that the charming businessman with the Harvard law degree is a safe bet, and the outlier who has been running his own gelato stand in Italy is just a dreamer unfit for the realities of the business world. To replace the necessity of formal education in business, we need to even the playing field and make the standards for potential success or failure more nuanced, perpetuating everyone to work smarter, not harder.

1. Businesses seek life hackers to fill innovation roles.

We can find a way to equate the value of education with non-traditional life experiences. Is a Rhodes scholar’s moral force of character stronger, weaker, or equal to that of an applicant who has spent the last year navigating the medical system on behalf of a sick relative? Which is more likely to emerge with a new business idea?

The trouble is knowing exactly what top performance in an Ivy League graduate program connotes. They have achieved a certain status, competed with the best of the best, in a rigorous and respected environment. When someone has spent a year living in a rural Italian village, the value of that achievement is less certain.

Likely this approach relies on the salesmanship of these new applicants to prove their value, experience, and worth of the time spent on an atypical life path. Employers will come around as more of these applicants find roles and success in business.

2. The education system maintains control of the necessary certifications for success.

Business schools, masters programs, and graduate certification programs must recognize the need for change and continue to diversify their educational offerings. By taking the responsibility away from the business world when it comes to evaluating the non-traditional, students can emerge with the same degrees and collegiate standings, just with a completely different pool of experiences to pull from.

Allowing students to either manage their own curriculum or opt into obscure and unproven coursework would allow the education system to maintain their control and govern this change, while better equipping students for careers in innovation upon graduation.

Either way, we can imagine a future where the quirky candidate who manages to fund her passion for kite boarding with a covert cupcake business is the frontrunner for an in-house innovation position — not just the funny fringe candidate who is invited to quiet some inner curiosity and tell tales of adventure. Business grads beware. The cupcake shop owners are coming for your jobs.

If we think about some of the most worrisome situations every business will face — financial uncertainty, a security breach, an empty R&D pipeline — who would you rather have around to handle it? The new grad with a flashy MBA or the independent traveller who lost their wallet in Cambodia and managed to navigate home safely?

This article appeared in The Human Experience Issue. To read the full magazine, subscribe here.

the author

Andrea Hirsch

Andrea Hirsch is an innovation strategist with Idea Couture. Specializing in social media and digital strategy projects, Andrea is continuously striving to understand human interaction both online and in the ‘real’ world. She is based in Toronto, Canada.