As you should already be aware (if you visit frequently enough), I talk about just about anything and everything that pops into the ol’ brain.  Take today, for example.  I was reminded that someone I know has essentially quit her job to go back to school to earn a degree.

She has a really good job where the people she works for/with rely on her for her skills and her knowledge.  She is a cornerstone for the company.  So when she gave notice and went back to school to get a degree (in a different field), I was floored. It makes no sense whatsoever to me (or to her employer).  But it’s what she wants, so what are you gonna do?

In her mind, the degree is worth more than what she has right now. This is the result of the past thirty or forty years where we have pushed the college and university experience as the pinnacle of knowledge and the jumping point for your future success in the world. Without that piece of paper, you are somehow worth less than the person standing next to you.

Personally, I don’t buy into that.

I started out in the HVAC/Appliance market. I worked for my uncle, who owned a company that sold commercial ice systems (like you see in a hotel or restaurant), HVAC equipment (air conditioners and heaters) and after market appliance parts for all your major appliances (stove, refrigerator, washer/dryer and dishwasher).

One day, he set me in front of a Mac IIcx and told me to learn how to use it so I could produce fliers and catalogs for them. That was my start doing what I do. I went to college, but not for very long. I didn’t fit there. What I wanted to learn they didn’t teach, or wouldn’t teach because you had to do this first, or do that first or pass this test or jump through this hoop – plus it was expensive and neither I nor my mom had much money. I’ve always felt that knowledge should be there for people who seek it, not just for the people who can afford it or who toe the line of a professor who believes he/she is the king of their particular mountain. It was a ridiculously frustrating experience that I couldn’t wait to end (which I did quickly enough).

I went back to work (though in truth, I never actually left work).

Years later, I was working in that same industry, but for one of the manufacturers. I was the Director of Advertising. Unfortunately, the company was going under. I knew they were in trouble going in, but I took the job anyway. Two years later, we were going down hard, so I started looking for another job.

A gentlemen contacted me from another manufacturer based out of St. Louis. He needed someone to do the exact same job.   Seriously – it was the EXACT same job almost verbatim in what was needed. It was really exciting! For me, I would be doing what I’ve been doing well for years, what I’ve proven to be good at doing, just in another city and for a different company. Moving would suck, but the job was perfect for me – seemed like a no-brainer.

From his perspective, he would be bringing in someone who already knew the industry, knew the customer base and could walk in, sit down and start working. Training would be nothing – just familiarity with the products and I already had 90% of that thanks to my previous years working for my uncle when we SOLD his products. I even had my own software.

It was the perfect scenario for both of us, right?


When it came time to discuss compensation, he had some odd ideas. Namely, if you didn’t have a degree, you weren’t worth much of anything to him. His initial offer was less than half of what I was making. I was stunned by this.

It didn’t matter to him that I was already doing the exact same job for another company, didn’t matter that he wouldn’t have to train me or that I could walk right in and get down to business, didn’t matter that I had (at the time) roughly 15 years worth of on the job experience and knowledge.

None of the real world experience mattered. See, I didn’t have a degree.

What’s worse, he didn’t care what sort of degree a person had, as long as they had one. If I were to have a degree in, say, Forestry, he would have been ecstatic and more than willing to pay me gobs more money – even though it had nothing whatsoever to do with the position he was trying to fill. He’d forced everyone in his company, from sales people to the guy who drove the fork lift to even his own secretary, to get some sort of college degree – whether it had anything to do with their job or not did not matter one whit – as long as they had the degree.  He was making people better, you see?

I was confused, and stunned by this lunacy.

So was he. He thought I was nuts for not having a degree and he thought anyone who paid me what they were paying me must also be out of their mind.  He couldn’t believe that anyone would hire me without a degree in, say, ‘Global Studies’ or ‘English Lit’ or ‘The Jedi’ (I heard there was some sort of Jedi class… somewhere…).

He pointed out that there were several candidates locally that he could hire, all of whom had college degrees and, therefore, were far more qualified for the job than I despite having no experience in the actual industry.

Applicant #1, for example, had worked their way through college as a marketing person for a local bar chain. Their most celebrated accomplishment had been successfully giving away a boob job. Contestants had to enter a wet t-shirt contest and then somehow that got them into the contest to get the boob job. That’s right, I was up against boob job guy.

I asked if this person had any knowledge of the HVAC industry. “No,” he answered. I asked if this person had any knowledge of the software involved in what I do (like Adobe Creative Suite). “No,” he answered again. I asked how much training would be involved to get this person up to speed and working productively. “Weeks, probably. Maybe months,” he answered. “But he has a degree!”

This was the point he was trying to make. Somehow, in his mind, this word, ‘degree’, had taken on a whole different sort of meaning – like ‘Superman’.

“Don’t worry, Lois – the laser can’t possibly destroy the city – Superman will save us!”

In his mind, it didn’t matter what task might come up, what duty this person might have to perform – they had been prepared for anything and everything – they had a degree…!

“Quick! We need someone to design a new web banner for our website!  Does anyone in the room have a degree?!”

There was no way that he and I were ever going to see eye to eye on this, so I ended up not taking the ‘job offer’ and I moved to Colorado which has been better for me by far.

Still, I see people killing themselves for this piece of paper and I just don’t get it. To quote Inigo Montoya, “I do not think that means what you think it does.”

I have personally known absolutely brilliant people who never went to college, people who never went to college and are absolute morons, brilliant people who graduated college and absolutely brain-dead stupid people who graduated from college – the last lot, they tend to have their degree proudly framed on their wall and I can’t help but wonder – how do they tie their shoes in the morning without accidentally choking themselves…?

I don’t think the paper makes as much a difference as the person does.

…but I could be wrong. (I don’t think I am though). But I could be. (But I’m not).


1 Comment

  • Kenneth Godwin Posted November 28, 2009 6:14 am

    I think you are correct. The main value of that piece of paper is it will open some doors that would otherwise be closed. Whether that is worth the time and energy involved? Most studies say, on average, it is. And in certain circles, people really do look down on people without a degree.

    Suffice to say, I know some of these people and would prefer not to say their names. Personally, I wish degrees were more 'real world oriented' and less 'random stuff we think you might need'. I had a summer internship…how much of my 'university knowledge' was used?


    How much of it was stuff I knew from doing what I do for my own interests?

    90+% of it.

    Was my boss happy?
    He complimented me and never complained. So probably.

    Just my two cents for what it is worth. 😛

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