I've always been a big believer in practical experience. This came to mind this morning when I read an article about a cat getting a GED.
I'm kind of sorry I didn't think of this stunt after hearing how much Google relied on grade point averages in their interviews of experienced executives. It seemed strange to me that, given a lengthy work history, anyone would really care about what degree or GPA a person had. Neither Bill Gates nor Steve Jobs even graduated from college, suggesting neither would be qualified to work at Google
The bigger problem is that degrees and titles imply a level of capability that may not exist. Gone are the days when people had to pass a series of tests to become a master at a job. It is not uncommon at all to have CEOs who don't know how to lead a company, CTOs who know little about technology, and we've certainly seen what appears to have been a large disaster caused by too many CFOs who couldn't or wouldn't do their jobs.
Degrees, GPAs, and Certifications Are Increasingly Worthless
The curriculum between schools varies widely. Even in the same school, there are ways to game the system so that educators that grade easily are selected over those that are tougher. Papers can be bought, and there have been a lot of instances where tests scores have been compromised. In many schools you can buy and memorize critical tests before they are given, use extra credit to assure top grades, and still not actually learn anything. Surveys have concluded that the majority of students cheat and the trend is rising in higher education. Even educators are participating in cheating, and this too isn't uncommon. One university established a special grade just for caught (read stupid) cheaters. The grade for someone that isn't caught is generally an "A". By the way, this isn't just a U.S. problem.
Even if you do legitimately cover the course material, education generally is far removed from what actually goes on in the real business world, where decisions have material impact and results aren't measured by how much work you do but by how well you do the work.
The real value out of a school is likely more the network of people the student meets rather than the skills they pick up, coupled with any real business experience they have acquired. Once out of school, they develop true business records, their educational background is increasingly rendered obsolete and, I imagine, after about five years is of negligible value.
The same applies for technology certifications, which have had a nasty history of being gamed (folks memorize the test answers) and quickly become outdated by the rapid march of technology products, in any case. You can't even rely on them actually existing.
A few years back my wife's company hired a new VP of marketing, and he and the president went on a trip to Australia where this new VP grew up. At a party, after a large number of drinks, one of the VP's buddies (clearly not realizing he was talking to the VP's boss) said something to the effect of "can you believe how stupid the guy is who hired the VP? Hell, he didn't even finish high school and that idiot thinks he is a Harvard MBA." Needless to say the VP became an ex-VP before the end of the evening. Up until then, however, he not only was thought to be successful in his role but was clearly well along the path of becoming a close friend of the firm's president.
You can even find listings for folks asking for help creating false diplomas. (Ann All turned me on to this Avoid This Job site where I found the fake diploma listing and it is now one of my guilty pleasures).
Titles Are Often Meaningless
Elsewhere on the site Ann All and Patrick Avery are driving a discussion on strange job titles, which is somewhat related, in that they focus us on the trend toward creative job titles that don't create false impressions. I actually think this may be a good thing -- though adding magic to the titles is a bit of a stretch -- because you can't trust traditional job titles, either.
In the research business, for instance, you can be a VP without ever actually having anyone report to you formally, let alone handling the expected VP load of owning a division. In fact, with the inflation of titles it isn't unusual to have several presidents in a company. What used to be the top title is now the equivalent of a VP, VPs are directors, and directors are first-line managers. Or the titles are just given out instead of a raise and have nothing to do with the individual's actual capabilities or responsibility. There is even a site that teaches you how to fake a resume; they have a newsletter suggesting there are a lot of folks using this site.
Unique titles, on the other hand, must describe the actual duties of the job. Since there are no assumptions, the assumptions don't create a false impression. They may actually be more honest than the traditional titles, which are so often inflated or misapplied. It kind of amazes me how often titles are given instead of bonuses or compensation, given that any background check will identify the fraud and lock the employee into an underpaying job. Few want to take a lower title job. Hiring managers will think the employee is under qualified for a job with the same title, or a potential HR problem is created if the title is lower, making it difficult to find a new job in another company, let alone one that the employee with the inflated title can do successfully.
Wrapping Up: Background Checks Increase in Importance
It isn't the degree, GPA, or title that is important; it is whether the employee can do the job successfully. For a college hire, this means internships, job assessments and contact lists are likely more important than education. For the experienced employee, it's their verified accomplishments, and for the experienced manager it's the success of their team (not their personal success). In every case, some care should be taken to determine if the job applicant was really the person responsible for the success, not someone else from whom they are stealing the credit.
In today's world where it is way too easy to get a cat certified as a high school graduate and where highly qualified people are often passed over because they don't have a degree in an area they are expert in, it is background, job match and capability rather than a piece of paper that is most important. Realize that neither Steve Jobs nor Bill Gates could likely make it through the hiring process at Apple or Microsoft today. Maybe it is time to focus on what is important because, from my perspective, there are too many degreed cats in critical positions in many companies.