Can you ever have too much education? (part 2)

De facto job requirements and overeducated candidates

Can you ever have too much education? (part 2)
Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl


Last week I discussed whether additional education is necessarily the best or only option for furthering one’s career. The more education someone has, the greater the returns will be diminished by completing yet another degree. 


On the other hand, there are many professions or vocations where certain academic credentials are actual or de facto job requirements. If 90 per cent of people in a certain position or function have a specific academic credential and you’re interested in moving into that field, it is probably a good idea to at least consider completing that qualification. 


For example, in spite of the fact many people are starting to question the value of an MBA degree, it can be a de facto job requirement in certain jobs and organizations within industries such as consulting and investment banking. While you could probably do some of those jobs without an MBA, it might be difficult to land a job if you don’t have it. 


Nevertheless, I’m a firm believer in substitution, alternate credentials and acquiring skills and competencies other than through formal academic qualifications. For example, if a job posting for an HR executive position asks for an MBA, is someone with an undergraduate degree in business, a master’s degree in human resources and an HR professional designation really missing anything an MBA has?


Despite the educational arms race among candidates and employers these days, I also believe people’s current level of education has at least some relevance even if the subject matter of that education isn’t all that relevant. For example, I already have a master’s degree, so that would hopefully count for something where a job posting indicates a master’s is preferred. 


Despite the powerful signaling function of education in terms of the major or concentration, sometimes attaining a certain level of education simply meets a box-ticking requirement or preference. On the other hand, candidates may then be required to show how they have obtained the necessary skills and knowledge through other means. 


All of this is a roundabout way of saying you may not really need that second or third degree after all. Employers should keep this in mind and understand that being more flexible will have a positive impact on diversity and the size, breadth and depth of the candidate pool.


Rejecting candidates with too much education


I’ve written in the past about the perils of rejecting overqualified candidates out of hand. Doing so can be discriminatory and ends up screening out people who would be a great fit. So-called overqualified candidates can be great hires as long as they aren’t a major flight risk and wouldn’t be bored out of their skulls.


But what about someone who has too much education for a job? Should she be rejected?


Recent grads often encounter this problem and can have a difficult time getting hired. People often wrongly assume fancy educational credentials automatically qualify candidates for more senior-level jobs even in the absence of experience.


I personally experienced this when people thought I was overqualified for certain jobs because of my education. Yet no one would hire me for the jobs people thought I was qualified for because I lacked the experience.


While education sometimes allows people to move up the ladder faster or can allow graduates to skip the most junior entry-level positions, they still need to start near the bottom and pay their dues for a while. It isn’t like the old days when university grads were automatically fast-tracked through management training programs. 


University graduates in non-graduate jobs


On the other hand, credentialism is definitely a factor, and employers are asking for advanced education to do jobs previously held by high school graduates. This is a problem in many ways – particularly for those lacking postsecondary education – but many jobs have become more complex in recent years, which often requires more education.


I remember interviewing for a retail job once when the hiring manager was basically rejecting me by telling me I’d make a great lawyer. Yet I wasn’t qualified as a lawyer and I needed a job at the time, not several years in the future.


There’s no shame in honest work, even where people are in jobs considered “beneath” them due to their education. I also think educated people can sometimes appreciate the bigger picture for the organization and industry even in a relatively simple job.

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