In the October 31, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a successful manager pays the price of working for an employer who values a college degree more than the employee’s proven abilities.
I have a great job in a fantastic company. Well, it’s fantastic except for HR.
I am an information technology (IT) manager with approximately 25 years experience. I lead a fantastic team. I have been a manager for many years here, I love my job, have never had a performance issue and, in fact, my team scores as the highest-engaged in the organization. I write industry articles and I am respected in my field.
While I am the only manager that reports directly to a C-Suite leader, my peers are at the director level. We (my boss and I) have been told time and time again that I cannot be promoted to director because I do not have a degree. I do the same work and have the same level of responsibility as my director peers, but without a degree they will not allow me to rise above manager.
I am basically a director without a proper title. Does this fall under any sort of discrimination? What can I do about it? I would love to go back to school but I am currently putting my own kids through college.
It is frustrating to think that I would have to leave a job and company I truly love just to further my career.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this story. It’s a distressing commentary on corporate management. Unless someone has explained to you what the material value of a degree is to the director-level jobs, the company is risking losing one of its most productive people for what seems to be an arbitrary reason.
How much is a college degree worth?
I’m not a lawyer so I can’t comment on discrimination or legalities. It might be worth investing a few bucks in a good employment attorney for an opinion and guidance. My guess is that their advice might depend on whether the degree requirement is levied on all employees or just on you — and on whether you’re paid less than others for the same work.
To get another perspective, I turned to my good buddy Suzanne Lucas, who writes the outstanding (and contrarian) EvilHRLady column for Inc. magazine. She’s one of the few HR gurus I respect and trust — her insights and advice cut through the bureaucracy every time. She’s not a lawyer, either, but she’s got more experience with HR compliance than I do. Here’s her reaction to what I told her about your situation:
“There’s nothing illegal about discriminating against someone who lacks a college degree, but there is a whole lot of stupid involved. If you’ve got years of experience that prove your capabilities, then what does it matter what you did between the ages of 18 and 22?
“That said, I’d advise you to do a degree. I tend to recommend Western Governors University for situations like this. Not because I think you need to learn these things but because companies are super hung up on the idea that everyone needs a degree.”
A whole lot of stupid about a college degree
Suzanne and I agree: Your employer has a whole lot of stupid going on.
But we’re both pragmatists, and that’s why I also agree with her prescription. You need to decide what’s important to you, and figure out how to achieve it. If your company is dead-set against promoting you without a degree, your next step is to find good companies that will commit to your career growth without the need for a degree. Or you have to get a degree.
You must decide which route to take.
The ROI of a college degree
I think I’d take one more shot at convincing your management that you deserve to be a director without a degree. Run this by your boss first, but then request a meeting with the president or CEO of your company. Negotiate. Respectfully make your case about how you can deliver the ROI expected of a director — but do not threaten to quit. Explain that you understand the policy, but that you wanted to ask whether they’d make an exception after qualifying you in some other way for a director’s job. If you’re told No, shake hands, smile, and go back to work.
Then decide what to do.
If you decide a degree is a solution, you may not have to wait until your kids finish college. Be smart about it. Get a degree from an accredited distance-learning college that doesn’t cost as much as a traditional school. (See Can I earn a degree from the School of Hard Knocks?) In other words, calculate the return on investment (ROI). You may find it’s positive and worth the investment.
Find an accredited distance-learning school
While I trust Suzanne’s guidance, I don’t know the school she recommends. One of my favorite distance schools is New Jersey’s Thomas Edison State University. (I have no affiliation with TESU.) It’s a publicly funded, accredited state school. Do your own research. Consider trying a degree program. Just make sure it’s accredited and that any credits you earn are transferable.
Here’s what you might not know. The cost of a degree may be less than you think. Likewise the investment of time. And the ROI may be better than you’d guess. I learned these tips long ago from my friends at Thomas Edison:
- You can test out of many required courses by virtue of your knowledge and experience.
- This saves you money, and it can cut down the time to a degree dramatically.
- You can even complete much of the coursework and then transfer your credits to a better-known bricks-and-mortar school if it means something to you to have a sheepskin from a “name” school. (I wouldn’t worry about that.)
Don’t rule out the degree too quickly because of cost. There’s probably a similar state-funded college where you live.
Solve the problem
Your problem is not lack of a degree. Your problem is that you can’t get the kind of job and title you want. So focus on how to do that. Talking to your management one more time is important — don’t make any assumptions. Then choose.
The risk you face if you leave your job to go to another company without a degree is that you may face the same problem. Like Suzanne Lucas, I think your company’s policy may be counter-productive. But I don’t control employers. And you can control only yourself.
I wish you the best.
An even bigger problem
Because we love to have in-your-face discussions about heavy-duty issues here, I’d like to point readers to an article in the Washington Post: Wanted for any job: A bachelor’s degree. Is that smart? (Heads up: The Post requires a paid subscription to read more than a limited number of free articles.) Here’s the controversy:
“Look closely at most job advertisements these days and you’ll notice an interesting, if not disturbing, trend: Most of them require a four-year college degree.
“Economists refer to this phenomenon as ‘degree inflation,’ and it is spreading across all kinds of industries and jobs. Among the positions never requiring a college degree in the past that are quickly adding that to the list of desired requirements: dental hygienists, photographers, claims adjusters, freight agents and chemical equipment operators.”
When do college degrees really matter? Have employers gone bonkers? Are the economists right — is there real degree inflation? Okay, folks — it’s time to pile on!