It’s the age-old debate – do you really need a degree to get a good job?

The answer is simple – it depends on what profession you want to enter into and then the question of whether this profession needs a degree is for professional bodies or employers to answer.

But then even if the professionals decide they need or want you to have a degree in their field, do these university courses really provide more than on-the-job training?

I personally didn’t go down the degree route. It just didn’t seem like something that would benefit me at the time. To this day I have no regrets – I have a career which I love, I continue to learn on the job every day and I have a fortune of experiences which have helped shape every choice I have made to get me to where I am today.

The one regret I might have is that I missed out on the “student experience”. And no, I’m not talking about the outrageous parties and discounts from your student card; I understand the value in demonstrating that a person has the ambition and drive to get the job done.

University or higher education isn’t easy. It demands long hours, concentration, motivation and discipline. And so many employers will be looking for someone who has a degree, whether it is relevant to the job or not, simply because it proves that they can see something through, and this is a quality employers look for in candidates.

But you can’t teach someone the qualities of being ambitious, driven and entrepreneurial, these are attributes that are either part of an individual’s personality DNA or not. And finishing a university degree is definitely not the only way to use these attributes to their highest potential.

As a mum I’m torn on knowing what the best option for my son is. His education is important to me but I would never choose a piece of paper over being savvy, street smart and commercially aware.

Some people are simply better at learning on the job with practical experience. Some people are clever enough to talk their way into anything. Some people are savvy enough to move forward in this world without having to be schooled for an extra three to six years.

And what about the incredible amounts of debt these students are racking up taking on a degree that they don’t necessarily need? Personal debt is a reality that affects huge number in the UK. The education system is forcing graduates to start their working lives with as much as £50,000 of debt, with the typical graduate owing around £16,000. And if they’re not starting their working lives with this debt, they’re falling into an expensive unemployment when they graduate.

The unemployment rate for graduates as it stands is at about 18.9%, meaning that one in every five new graduates is unemployed. Even those who are employed tend to be employed in jobs they are working out of necessity. The Graduates in the Labour Market report shows that nearly 36% of recent graduates are employed in lower skilled jobs.

As a recruiter I know how tough it is for graduates to get a job. Employers are increasingly making their job requirements harder for a graduate to meet. All too often an entry-level position will require some level of experience.

The best advice I can offer if you are a graduate, is to make the best use of your holidays and spare time that you possibly can. Get experience in the industry you want to work in by going in and helping out a few days a week or month.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again - practical, hands-on, thrown-in-the-deep-end experience is invaluable.

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Comment by Alasdair Murray on March 11, 2013 at 11:00am

Given the cost attached to gaining a degree these days, and the vast numbers percentage wise (roughly 40% of students as opposed to 10% back in the 1960s) I would advise anyone to think very carefully about the actual value of the degree course they are thinking of embarking upon.

If it were me it would be a no brainer. Unless I had chosen a profession that demanded a decent degree, I would try and get into the workplace at age 18 and get several years practical experience, rather than accruing a debt and coming out of uni with a degree that thousand upon thousand of other people also have. I just couldn't face the possibility that not only had I racked up a  big debt, but also that there was absolutely no guarantee of a job that would employ me at a level that would reward my studious endeavours. And that seems to be the case for many when they finish their time at uni. And, even if they do manage to find a job, they then have the millstone of debt around their neck before they have even embarked on the world of work.

Some will say "ah, but you only have to pay back your debt when you earn over £21k a year", and yes, that's true. But why the hell spend 3 or 4 years incurring a debt only to then do a job that pays less than the threshold simply to avoid having to pay back the money? It simply makes no sense to me. We have brought the problem upon ourselves by encouraging vast numbers to go to uni and at the same time making it feel sometimes through advertising jobs that unless you have a degree you're a liability and a no-hoper. That isn't the case at all and we should be telling our children this, rather than pointing at school league tables and piling huge pressure on them.

Comment by Will Thomson on March 11, 2013 at 12:57pm

Okay- wow.  It does depend on what kind of job you are trying to get, but I was talking to my wife yesterday about this exact topic.  If you are going to do sales, or if you are going to do some specific job where you are a SME with a trade, maybe you wouldn't need a degree.  I will say, that many companies today will not hire someone without a degree.  Now a days a Master's degree is a minimum requirement.  If you don't go after a degree, your career will cap at some point.  Things will be easier and you will have more frequent promotions when you have the education.  My take.. It is an absolute necessity these days.  Just my two cents.  There is a Michael Dell or two out there, but for the most part, it sure makes things easier!

Comment by Amy Ala Miller on March 11, 2013 at 1:22pm

To further expand on Will's point - while I don't know if your career will be "capped", it definitely can keep you from applying to positions through traditional methods. Too many requisitions require a degree and if you don't have one you are automatically disqualified. Even if you're MORE than qualified to do the job. (I think a lot of Recruiter postings are notorious for this.)

My daughter is in college and if she's very lucky and very frugal, she'll get out with little to no debt. She has a few years covered by the GI Bill (as a military dependent - dad didn't use it) and some decent financial aid help here and there. I want the rest of my kids to go to college too, but the default position won't be "apply for loans and worry about it later". There are other options that make it lest cost prohibitive, such as getting an AA from a community college with Direct Transfer Agreements to 4 yr universities. I don't have a degree either and it's one of my biggest regrets. 

Comment by Sandra McCartt on March 11, 2013 at 1:47pm

Get the degree.  At some point you will apply for a job that you really want.  If there are two candidates who are considered equally qualified, one has a degree and the other does not, nine times out of ten the person with the degree will get the job.  A degree in anything even rocket science does not guarantee a good job or even a job but it can be the door opener or the knock out factor so why not eliminate the knock out factor and be sure that you have the door opener.

Even working on a degree over a period of many years may be a factor.  If cost is a deal killer, take one class a semester online until it's done.  A degree in process is better than none.  I talk to too many people who regret that they didn't finish college if for no other reason a feeling of personal accomplishment.

Comment by pam claughton on March 11, 2013 at 2:14pm

College isn't right for everyone, especially if you are going into a trades business. My brother for instance never liked school but was great at working with his hands and owns a plumbing business.

Some sales jobs don't require a degree, but many do, especially those that sell to corporate environments. One of my favorite clients requires a degree for all positions and part of their reasoning is that one of their verticals is academia and they don't feel they'd come across as credible if their people didn't finish college. Finishing something you started is also a  reason I've heard from more than one client.

Personally, I don't think it should be a black and white issue. Some of the hardest working and most talented people I know don't have degrees. A while back I had a great candidate interview for a Director of Marketing role. She has attended college but was a semester away from finishing. Her references were stellar and her experience was ideal, but she wasn't hired because of the lack of a degree. Not having a degree definitely can rule you out of some opportunities.

I would advise most young people, unless they know they'll hate college, to get their Bachelor Degrees if they are able to. The experience of going to college is a wonderful one and it can open up all kinds of doors for you if you take advantage of everything available, such as interns, etc.


Comment by Amber on March 11, 2013 at 2:23pm

It's such a Catch-22 sometimes! I didn't get my degree, either. But at the time it was honestly due to choices made at a young age. Then married with a child at 21, then single mom at 23, it just never seemed like I was able to go to school. By the time I was 25, I was earning way more then most of the people I had went to school with who were college grads. And managing the college grads that came to work for me. But I can't say I never regretted it - at work functions when everyone asked and talked about where they went to college, companies who will not consider anyone without a degree, and the experience in general. I love learning, don't mind studying, and generally pick up things pretty quickly but I still haven't went back to school for a degree and probably won't. I have not ever regretted in relation to knowledge and being able to succeed in life.

For young adults now, I would have to say to get the degree. If only for the fact that there are some opportunities that won't even allow a foot in the door without one. 

Comment by Will Thomson on March 11, 2013 at 2:35pm

Amy & Sandra- you couldn't have said it any better. 

Comment by Stephen Hart on March 15, 2013 at 5:07am

I really hope not because I failed my exams and went to art college and then got a job and spent the last twenty odd years working hard to earn my seat at the table!

Seriously having a degree can open doors but I'd rather hire a person who genuinely believed, and practised, continual learning than someone who went to university for four years and may or may not have any common sense.

The sooner we focus on character over qualifications the richer our talent pool and companies will become.


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