Does alma really matter?

Many employees, employers feel focus should be on experience – not where worker got degree
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/22/2014

It’s a question applicants agonize over: Which college or university provides the best shot at a good job after graduation?

But the reputation or prestige of a post-secondary institution often has little to do with hiring decisions. Two recent surveys suggest employers — and employees — may be focusing more on real-world skills and experience as opposed to a big-name university.

Most Canadians (84 per cent) believe experience is more important than education when it comes to landing a job, according to a 2013 Randstad Global Workmonitor survey across 32 countries, interviewing at least 400 respondents per country.

Globally, most employees valued experience over education as well, but particularly employees in China (92 per cent), the United Kingdom (91 per cent) and India (91 per cent).

"Most employees actually consider education to be a must-have but it’s not what you make the decision on. So lots of organizations require a degree or diploma, but that’s it… beyond that, in Canada, (experience is more important)," said Tom Turpin, president of technologies, engineering and enterprise solutions at Randstad Canada in Toronto.

"You’re hiring people for their experience, and education is just part of that experience."

A Robert Half survey that focused on the information technology sector found 51 per cent of CIOs clearly prioritize skills and experience over a college degree when making hiring decisions. An additional 32 per cent reported they place little weight on the prestige of an applicant’s school, and only 10 per cent reported they are strongly influenced by the presence of a prestigious school on a candidate’s resumé.

"On the technology side especially… it’s really about the relevant skills. They want to know what you can do now and how you can contribute results quickly, with minimal ramp-up time. And that relates more to a person’s direct experience than what university or college they might have gone to," said Christopher Brady, division director at Robert Half Technology in Edmonton.

Educational ‘prestige’

Of course, a lack of education can be a barrier, just as lack of experience can be a barrier, said Naguib Gouda, president of Career Edge Organization in Toronto. But while education provides the foundation for a career, a school’s reputation is not the be-all and end-all.

"Overall, prestige doesn’t appear to be a key factor in terms of our data," said Gouda. "If we look at interns hired through our programs over the last three years or so, we’ve seen a really broad spectrum of educational institutions — everything from community colleges to Ivy League schools — and that’s even broader for internationally qualified professionals."

It’s important to have the core foundation a diploma or degree provides, especially for anyone interested in a leadership position at some point, said Brady. But hiring managers are also very interested in experience and skills — including soft skills.

"Even more so now, it’s the soft skills. It’s about fit and culture and environment. And if you’re not the right person, or you’re not the right match for that company, where you graduated from isn’t really relevant," he said.

That said, it can be difficult to determine how a hiring manager will view educational "prestige" because it really depends on the individual and any potential biases or assumptions she may have, said Jeff Rybak, a lecturer at the University of Toronto and author of What’s Wrong with University: And How to Make It Work for You Anyway.

"As much as we talk about ‘One degree is more prestigious than the other one,’ when you start to talk about individual employers, any random person you’ve applied to might think completely unique and eclectic things about where you went to school," he said.

Program, industry-specific

While many employers are not so intensely focused on whether an applicant’s school has a big name or not, the reputation of the particular program can carry a lot more weight, said Brady. And in some industry-specific areas, such as IT, certifications from specific vendors can be just as important — or even more important — than a diploma or degree.

The degree to which a program’s reputation matters increases as the job market gets more specific or specialized, said Rybak.

"The more general your job market, the less it matters. So if we’re talking about somebody who’s just graduated with a general arts degree, does it matter if you came from Brock or U of T? I cannot for the life of me believe that it really does," he said.

"But the more specialized you get, the more specific your degree… at that point, you’re shopping around your credentials to a much smaller market, a much more knowledgeable market of people who have a closer relationship with the profession. (Then) it might matter a lot more."

Generational factors

There could also be generational differences in determining how much weight employers place on educational prestige, said Rybak.

"In every field, and for every jobseeker, once you begin to gain experience, I think where you got your degree from fades in its importance. From whatever degree it mattered in the first place, it matters a lot less as your CV becomes deeper," he said, adding that for those at a later stage in their careers, the prestige factor of their degree hardly matters at all.

That said, if the degree mattered at the beginning of your career, then where you got your degree from could affect the quality of experience you get, said Rybak.

"If it really does affect where you get your foot in the door in the first instance, then… that doesn’t mean that the influence is completely gone."

Certainly, education is still an important piece, said Turpin.

"It’s extremely important that people are educated, especially in a society that values knowledge work more and more. But understand that, as time goes on, your experience starts to outweigh your education," he said.

"You don’t want to underweight education, especially when it comes to younger people… It’s often that education that allows you to gain the experience."

A degree is pretty much a prerequisite for gen Y and millennials today, said Gouda, especially in the absence of job experience.

"As an employer, I would value experience more for older people and less for younger people, because the assumption that you make is when you’re in your early 20s, you’ve had a very finite time to gain that experience. And what you do there is you look for broader, more soft-skill experience — transferable stuff like they were president of a club or they did volunteer work — and that is transferable experience to what I’m looking to hire them for," he said.

"Educational background is table stakes. It provides a strong foundation for the jobseeker but it’s not one or the other. It’s not real-
world experience versus (education), it’s a combination of the two. And I think what more and more universities are looking at doing is experiential learning, and the ability to transfer the skills that they’ve learned not just in the classroom but in the whole experience."

This isn’t to downplay the degree by any means, said Brady.

"It’s just to say that it’s not the be-all end-all that it maybe was perceived as before. There’s so much more that goes with it."