Degreed vs. Qualified

John Cook makes several good points with respect to the distinction between “professional” and “amateur.”

A professional is someone who does a thing for money, and an amateur is someone who does it for love. Volunteer fire fighters are amateurs in the best sense, doing what they do out of love of the work and love for the community they serve.

Unfortunately professional implies someone is good at what they do, and amateur implies they are not. Maybe skill and compensation were more strongly correlated in the past. When most people had less leisure a century or two ago, few had the time to become highly proficient at something they were not paid for. Now the distinction is more fuzzy.

A similar distinction can be made today between those with a college degree and those who are qualified. In the past, having a college degree served as a somewhat objective indication of an individual’s capabilities, level of competence, or at least their ability to complete a long-term project. Today, it’s pretty hard to argue that a degree in parapsychology or surfing indicate much more than an ability to pay a lot of money to an institution that’s more than willing to take it.

Degrees such as these could be dismissed as fringe interests or credentialed hobbies if it weren’t for the fact that it is common practice on resumes to simply list educational institutions and universities that have been attended without specifying degree details, or indeed if a degree program was even completed. The ubiquitous art and political science majors from more well known universities are just as specious. Many hiring managers fail to dig deeper into what constitutes a candidate’s capabilities as reflected in their credentials. Consequently, educational providers, such as the Eisner Institute for Professional Studies and England’s Plymouth University, are simply accepted based on the patina of their names.

Somewhere along the timeline, the dominant assumption became that an individual cannot be qualified in a particular area of interest unless some educational institution or provider has certified the qualification. Assembling high performance teams with this assumption is another way to rely on luck in the effort. After all, the bachelor’s degree is the new high school diploma.

A degree is a fine place to start the evaluation of a candidate’s capabilities. But a savvy team builder knows how to spot technical talent regardless the credential. One of the better ETL resources I had, for example, began his career in computers as a graphics artist. One of my more creative developers attended Colorado School of Mines, leaving a few classes shy of a degree for reasons that can best be described as a lack if interest in finishing. (Each of these talents, it should be noted, required a very different approach in management in order for them to remain productive on the development team.)

To paraphrase Cook, in the past most people had neither the time or the money to pursue advanced studies. Following the past two decades of unchecked tuition increases and easy student loans, the distinction of advanced capability once conferred by a college degree is more fuzzy. It’s possible the bursting higher education bubble may cause the pendulum to swing back the other way as many parents and self-paying adults are re-thinking the value inherent in college degree. Time will tell.