The problem with credentials

The problem with credentials

Most of us learned that degrees are good things; that having a degree was the key to a good job, security and a high salary.

Older generations came to believe this because they looked around and noticed that the people above them—the managers, the politicians, and professionals — all had an “education.”

Therefore the path to a better life was through education.  Duuhh.

But credentials, the degrees and experience, may be a poor proxy for what we want to assess—whether a candidate is a good fit and can flourish in a new role.  Here are four reasons why:

1) Everybody and their sister has a degree

Degrees were a rare thing.  Very few could get one and like all rare things, they were worth more in the marketplace because a degree demonstrated intelligence and a capacity to work hard.  For decades the magic formula worked: degree equal good job, good career and higher pay.

But now a university education is available to most, and degrees by themselves no longer signify any exceptional intelligence, diligence or potential in a candidate.  Undergraduate degrees are fast becoming the new high school diploma; you’re expected to have one.

2) People will do anything to get a degree.

Many degree holders weren’t pursuing the education so much as the degree and simply crammed their way through college.  Their degrees don’t tell you that they forgot 90% of what was on their exams within three months after taking them.

But at least they didn’t cheat.  Many others become members of the credentialed class by buying papers and even entire degrees.

There is a huge industry on plagiarism and cheating in North America, and possibly all over the world. Just Google “essay” and see how many services exist to write essays and papers that students hand in as their original work.

And many higher education institutions are happy to co-operate, even participate in the cheating so they can continue to sell their product—degrees.

3) We produce credentialed graduates that can’t do anything

As a consequence, every year we produce thousands of credentialed managers and place them into highly compensated positions to discover they are unable to cope with the expectations of their employers, and employees.

Lucky for them, the corporate structure is already highly dysfunctional (yet strangely profitable), and many keep their jobs by keeping their heads down and by following the rules.  Many hide behind titles, wielding their positions of authority like children with toy clubs doing irreparable damage to the human beings in their employ while holding their organizations back.

In the 20th century, they could do this for their entire careers, but not so much any more.

Fierce competition weeds out most of the credentialed low-contributors, except in those marketplaces shielded from competition like the public service where the credentialed incompetent still thrive.

4) We make life a Groundhog day for the “educated” unemployed

Question: What’s the easiest way for an unemployed person to regain their past income, status and job security?

Answer: By applying for the same type of job, position and salary that they had before.

By focussing us on credentials, our teachers unwittingly set us up for this.

Employers look for experience doing whatever you’re applying for. Resumes highlight what you’ve done, not  what you can do.   Changing jobs and careers is not considered a good thing.

We want long periods doing the same thing, we want predictability; we don’t want movers and shakers.

Not really.

And so our teachers have set us up to live our own version of Groundhog day, reliving the same or slight variations of our past job experiences, either in a different company with different Dilbert characters, or worse, in the same company for our entire working life.

The credentials antidote

The solution to the “credentials” problem is to start looking beyond them, for different and perhaps more subtle credentials.  Look for changing careers, volunteerism, adventurism, and signs of practicing education i.e. frequent updates to their knowledge.

Don’t be too impressed by PhDs, MBAs etc., even if they are from ivy league schools.  Look for signs of willingness; willingness to learn, grow, adapt to change and most of all, look for willingness to help.

Here’s how one smart HR professional is not being fooled by the best credentials.

Any thoughts? Contributions/acknowledgments welcome.