Hiring new talent: Has the novelty of having a degree worn off?

When there are fewer plum jobs and more graduates than ever before, the simple rules of supply and demand swing into play. It’s not so much that degrees have stopped being rated by employers – for many positions they remain pre-requisites even for consideration – but more that those who are in a position to offer the most interesting opportunities nowadays can afford to exercise far pickier selection criteria.

More than just a degree

Of course, in some situations either the institution attended or the subject studied can provide a crucial advantage. But for most graduates entering fields for which little direct vocational training is required, there is a need to show a much broader game.

This goes beyond just an array of extra-curricular interests and achievements; it’s about the person you have managed to become by the time you enter the workplace.

Internal culture is a vital component of most companies these days. It is what gives the organization its heartbeat, it drives the energy and passion with which employees perform their roles, it creates efficiency and loyalty, and in service businesses it becomes the face of the company that the paying customer sees and experiences.

Any employer is going to have a list of green-fee requirements, and this may include specifics about academic qualifications. It is also likely to include evidence of commitment to the field, such as relevant work experience, and signs of key aptitudes or skills that are needed to perform the job. Without these basics, it is unlikely that any candidate would get past initial interview. 

What then happens is that the employer starts to think about how well the candidate is likely to fit into the company and its culture. Is this person likely to belong? Will the environment be right for her to prosper, and get stuff done? What might he be able to contribute to the life of the company beyond its core business? Does she seem to understand our values and “get” what we’re all about? Will he end up looking forward to coming into work, and will work look forward to him arriving?

The elusiveness of ‘real’ criteria

For many employers, this judgment is played out viscerally. Others have at least notions around what soft factors they are seeking. For as long as I can remember interviewing people, there have been five key characteristics that I have looked for, which I believe probably hold good for anyone hiring into a creative industry.

Potential employees need to be confident, without being arrogant. They need to believe that what they have to say is worth listening to. They need to be passionate, without being nauseatingly gung-ho.

They need to give a shit about the stuff we do, and not view it as just a job to be got out of the way. They need to have integrity, but mixed with the right amount of savvy. People need to be able to believe in them. They need to have rigour, without being compulsive.

They need to want to do things the right way rather than just the quickest way. And they need to have curiosity, without being fecklessly unfocused. They need to enjoy discovering things at the margins.

The point of these characteristics  is not to suggest something definitive, but to illustrate how elusive the real criteria often are. These things are not the stuff of a Curriculum Vitae, let alone a degree.

They come from an interaction with the candidate and, ideally, a try-out for both parties to test the match (and it should never be forgotten that this is a two-way street – the employee should be asking similar questions of the employer).

So does that mean that degrees these days are no longer worth the time and effort? If the only purpose of completing the degree is to enhance your employment prospects, possibly so. But this seems to miss the whole point.

The value of the degree is less in the qualification it bestows upon you, and more what the experience of university does to you. It’s about the people you meet who stretch your horizons and form a valuable network for the rest of your adult life.

And it’s about giving yourself the chance to mature sufficiently to set out in the right direction in the first place. Ultimately it’s about nurturing the person you have managed to become by your early twenties. And that is the very thing that potential employers are looking most at. 

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