Qualifications or Skills? An age-old debate relevant even in the current times

During a phase of my career where I was part of the hiring board for my department, I had to take quite a lot of interviews. These were candidates who were shortlisted from an even a larger pool of resumes. During these interviews, I met several candidates who had the best of the narrative on their resumes. Their qualifications were perfect for the role. I distinctively recall several occasions where I as an interviewer, felt under achieved. It is natural to feel that away. However, there were several other candidates who did not have qualifications or in other words, the industry recommended certifications. Initially it was quite surprising to realize that many of the qualified folks were barely able to crack practical scenarios that needed resolution. And it was equally surprising to see some folks who had no qualifications but were fantastically adept that resolving. Perhaps it was more with the hands-on experience these folks did.

It’s been almost two decades for me joining the corporate world. As a newbie, I used to be excited about every new project and work and couldn’t wait to put my skills and education to use. I had made it a point to keep myself abreast of the latest in my industry and maybe that helped me stay afloat despite so many upheavals in the sector ever since.  As the years went by and I settled in my work, I began seeing new recruits join the workforce. At times I wonder that these new recruits may have the qualifications that get them the coveted job but lack the skills to work with that knowledge. Simply put, it’s like having your plate full but not having the fork and spoon to eat with.

Of late, we have been hearing a lot about how skills matter more than qualification. Most of these pieces are fueled by news from companies of the FAANG gang like Apple who is hiring college dropouts at an alarmingly increasing rate, based merely on the skill that the person brings to work. A couple of years ago, Tim Cook famously said that Apple hires over 50% of its recruits who don’t have the qualifications but know programming and non-programming tasks, which they don’t teach in college. No wonder that Apple, in 2016, launched the Everyone Can Code program in US schools, to give basic knowledge about coding to school students, which over 4000 schools in the US are using today.

Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, Dell are classic examples where the founders had no proper college degree or had dropped out. That paved the way for many passionate techies who tread the same path. Who has time to attend classes and earn credits when you can spend the same time learning skills and creating something of your own?

The core premise of those who vouch for the ‘Skills are more important’ part of the narrative is that having qualification never assured you a job but having skills does. The other party that swears by the qualification angle say that all your skills and knowledge is of no use unless you can be assessed and quantified for it through systematic training by (qualified) teachers, practicals and evaluation through exams. Why then, ask they, are millions of degree-holders sitting unemployed while millions of jobs remain unfilled the world over for lack of the right candidates?

The fence sitters argue that qualifications can take you only so far, but skills are needed to be added to take you ahead. Any which way, the debate continues unhindered. Those who benefit from it are obviously those who know how to may hay while the sun shines!

Skills are important, but more important are the relevant skills, that too to perfection. How else would Tim Cook select you over someone with a Masters Degree in Computer Science from the best of world’s colleges like MIT or Caltech? You must know something better and more relevant than the degree holders for him to pick you over them. And that is exactly where the skills gang fizzles out. Relevant skills, updated skills, applicable skills – that’s the order.

The “skills matter” debate:

  1. The curricula cannot change as fast as the industry and technology changes
  2. The race to bag seats in elite colleges is so intense that kids follow shortcut methods to crack entrance exams by toiling for years
  • Educational institutions cannot replicate the industry setting while educating the students which makes longer on-boarding times

Now let’s take the other courses- take a Chartered Accountants, Certified Internal Auditors, Financial Analysts. All these students work for years to qualify. Even after that, they need skills like working with accounting software, SQL, Tableau, Financial modeling, data analytics, which are basically technical skills. In the absence of these skills, their accounting and financial knowledge cannot be put to good use. That is the reason that most of the engineers rush to get an MBA – to acquire the skills on the other end of the spectrum. Even after doing that, does that ensure the person can be a good leader? It takes some key skills for a person to become a leader- skills, mind you, not qualifications.

Leadership, innovation, staying ahead of competition, emotional intelligence, knowing the pulse of the market and customers are all skills one must have.

The “qualifications matter” debate:

If you don’t have your knowledge evaluated, how would a recruiter know how much do you know? How else would you be picked up for a job over hundreds and thousands of other aspirants? Your skills can be used only once you are selected and start working. But to get there, you need a formal validation of your knowledge – which is the degree. They also explain how a formal education teaches you to think linearly. It teaches you to analyze and explore more.

Amidst all this, one thing is clear, at least to me, that qualifications by far matter when you’re aiming for a job. Otherwise no one asks an entrepreneur his qualifications. The example quoted of those who dropped out of college, also matter. They dropped out of the best of colleges of the world, entering which is a matter of intelligence. They all pursued entrepreneurship. Can anyone tell me the name of a CEO of a multi-million dollar company who has no formal education and relies only on skills? Maybe not, unless he is the founder of his own company.

A caveat to all those who take sides: skills and qualifications both matter, but it all depends upon what your aim is. If you’re all set towards starting or creating something of your own, then go ahead and drop out of that college (better still if you drop out of the best college in the world). But having got your qualifications, please do not undermine the value of skills. Going ahead, one will need skills to gallop further because the younger generations will come equipped with the latest ones.

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