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In Search of Hidden Treasure

August 6, 2010

This is another Career Advantage article. More about the straightjackets of ageism, rigid recruitment practice and over-reliance on paper qualifications….

“The other day, I was having dinner with a friend. He’s a former soldier who did his officer training at a prestigious military college. When he left the Army he went into IT. At the age of fifty, he’s still working in the same field here in the Middle East. He’s concerned that as he gets older, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for him to pass through the recruiter’s gate, first because of his age, and more importantly because he doesn’t have a university degree. This is despite a military education that gave him knowledge and skills superior to that achieved by the vast majority of graduates in his area of specialization.

We talked about people who get “Life Experience” degrees you can pick up for $500 via the internet. We agreed that these people are probably wasting their money, because nowadays days recruiters (and I was one in an earlier life) can spot a dubious degree from a mile off.

As we talked, I reflected on the role of “qualifications” in determining the level of success an individual will have in his or her career.

What I have to say from here onwards may not be what the millions who have put their hearts and souls into achieving the all-important degree certificate will want to hear. So at the risk of alienating half the planet (or at least the tiny fraction of that hemisphere who happen upon this blog), here are a few thoughts about qualifications, and how attitudes towards them have led to the failure to recognize a huge pool of untapped human capability.

For centuries, university degrees fell into two categories. The first category included those qualifications which proved that, at a given point in time, you had the minimum knowledge and mental ability to carry out some kind of occupational task. Medicine, law and divinity came first, followed later by disciplines such as science, engineering, accountancy and teaching.

In the second category were the so-called liberal arts – philosophy, divinity, history and languages. Until the early 20th Century, these would be degrees favored by people who didn’t want to go into one of the so-called “professions” – law, medicine and so on. In some cases they were the favored option of the wealthy, who might be expected to go into politics or manage the family estates and business. In other cases they were the choice of those who had a passion for the subject and wanted to share their knowledge through teaching or academic research. In the days of Isaac Newton, science was also considered a liberal art, and only later became the gateway for careers as physicists, chemists and biologists as the industrial revolution gathered pace.

Then came disciplines that straddled the divide. Subjects that provided the student with many potential career options: management, sociology, psychology, archaeology, anthropology, and then a host of new entrants to the university curricula, such as media studies, sports science and hotel management. The list goes on, becoming ever more exotic as we reach the present day.

The assumed common denominator for all degrees is that graduates, at the time that they graduate, have proved that they have achieved a benchmark in their knowledge and their capacity to think in ways approved by the institutions that taught them.

It’s a logical and rational system that has stood the test of time.

But in my opinion, as academia has become a business, and as hundreds of millions of young people aspire to a life beyond the reach of their parents and grandparents, the degree has become the one-eyed king in the land of the blind.

Nowhere is this more true than in the Middle East. Here, employers (though not all, I hasten to say) are often too lazy to look beyond a person’s qualifications. So they will judge a person of twenty years of experience and wisdom on the basis of knowledge they acquired two decades ago, much of which they probably forgot within a couple of years of graduating. Teachers ram home the importance of qualifications, and often they talk about certificates, as though the piece of paper is more important than the learning. Which, in practice, it is, because employers frequently place more importance on the piece of paper than on the evidence of experience and competence gained since graduation. So the certificate becomes an end in itself, not a milestone in a life long journey of learning.

In a culture where being a manager wins more respect than being a specialist, specialist degrees often provide the stepping-stone for career advancement into areas for which they do not prepare the student. Clever engineers become mediocre managers or worse, because being a manager pays better.

The certificate obsession in the Middle East is only an extreme example of the attitude towards qualifications the world over. That attitude is often overcome by brilliant individuals such as Richard Branson and Alan Sugar in the UK, who have few formal qualifications, and yet have created huge business empires and gained wide respect for their abilities. But often as not, they are the exceptions rather than the rule.

I suggest that there are hundreds of thousands of Richard Bransons and Alan Sugars working away in jobs way below their capabilities because, like them, they do not have the pieces of paper so prized by employers. They may not have the determination of Branson and Sugar, but the capability is there, untapped.

In the 1990s a Houston petroleum engineer in his seventies called George P Mitchell found a way of unlocking vast gas reserves trapped in shale. Others ignored these resources because they considered extraction to be too difficult and expensive. Thanks to his pioneering work, he became a billionaire, and the US has reversed decades of decline in gas reserves to become the leading gas producer today. At the age of 92, Mitchell is still working today – a living testament to lifelong learning and the staying power of the elderly.

Just as that gas was waiting for a brilliant engineer to extract it, the capabilities of many capable people remain today to be discovered and used to their full potential. People who, for a number of reasons, such as poverty, accidents of fate or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, missed out on the formal education that employers demand.

Employers who find a way to extract that talent by looking beyond the straightjacket of formulaic recruitment techniques and rigid attitudes towards qualifications will discover a new seam of intelligent, motivated and capable human resources.

HR professionals will point to assessment centers as a good way of tapping that talent. But if the only way to walk through the assessment door is to have a pass marked “degree”, and that pass is the only way to progress to roles matched to capability, employers will continue to miss out on the hidden treasure that is available to them.

Archimedes, Galen, Ibn Al Haytham, Al Kwarizmi and Leonardo Da Vinci did not have pieces of paper attesting to their knowledge, yet their discoveries and perceptions changed the world.

Degrees are good things, but they are not the only markers of capability. As long as I’m in business, I shall encourage employers to look beyond them and tap the human equivalent of shale gas.

As for my friend who, incidentally, introduced me to the best seafood in Bahrain – this is for him.

Steve Royston
June 2010”

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