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Creating a Competitive Edge: Why Today's Employers and Individuals Are Choosing Skills Over Academic Credentials

In a world where traditional education has long been revered as the primary path to success, a paradigm shift is underway. The notion that a college degree is the ultimate measure of knowledge and skill is being challenged. The emerging concept of "Skills Over Degrees" and how it is reshaping the way we perceive education and career development.


In 2021, LinkedIn launched its Learning Hub, focused on skill acquisition.  Why the transition?  Employers are becoming more focused on the skills employees can bring to the role and their capability to acquire new skills.


“Learning critical skills quickly is an imperative in the new world of work. The World Economic Forum predicts that 85 million jobs will go away and 97 million new ones will be created in just the next four years. Organizations today understand the enormity of the shift we are experiencing and, according to findings in the 2021 Workplace Learning Report, upskilling and reskilling is the top priority for L&D professionals globally.”


The traditional education system and employers have long emphasized the importance of obtaining a degree as a prerequisite for success. In my career, my companies overutilized degree requirements. We identified a bachelor’s degree as a minimum requirement for eligibility consideration for leadership roles.  This requirement unnecessarily limited our talent pool and undoubtedly impacted employee engagement. 


Upon reflection, this approach is lazy and fails to acknowledge the rapidly changing needs of the modern workforce. In today's fast-paced and ever-evolving world, employers are seeking individuals who possess practical skills and the ability to adapt to new challenges.


The "Skills Over Degrees" paradigm recognizes that skills and practical knowledge are invaluable assets in the professional landscape. While degrees may provide a foundation of theoretical knowledge, they often fall short in preparing individuals for the demands of real-world scenarios. Employers are increasingly prioritizing candidates who can demonstrate their ability to apply their knowledge effectively and contribute immediately to their organizations.


One of the main advantages of prioritizing skills over degrees is the democratization of knowledge acquisition and application. Traditional education can be inaccessible to many due to financial barriers or limited availability of educational institutions. However, skills acquisition can occur through various means, including online courses, vocational training programs, apprenticeships, and self-directed learning. By focusing on skills rather than degrees, individuals from diverse backgrounds and circumstances can gain access to opportunities and build successful careers.


There are many examples of the inefficiency of traditional education. At its root is the fact that obtaining an education is nearly free for those that discover a learning passion.


James Cameron, Director of three of the four top grossing movies of all time (Avatar, Avatar: The Way of the Water and Titanic) shares while a 24-year-old truck driver, “he would Xerox all these doctoral dissertations on optical printing, film emotions, anything related to film technology. For the cost of xeroxing, I build up these big binders on how everything was done. So, I literally gave myself a full graduate course on film technology for $120.” (Howard Stern Interview).


Inversely related is that college expenses are wasteful for the 37.8% of new entry students who don’t complete their degree program in 6 years.




National Student Clearinghouse, Research Center, November 2023.  Interestingly, the six-year completion rate for men was 58.4%, and 65.6% for women. 


Moreover, the "Skills Over Degrees" paradigm promotes lifelong learning and continuous improvement. It recognizes that education does not end with the attainment of a degree but is an ongoing process. In a rapidly changing world, individuals must adapt and upskill to remain relevant in their respective fields. By prioritizing skills, individuals are encouraged to pursue learning opportunities beyond the confines of a formal education system, constantly expanding their knowledge and staying ahead of the curve.


The shift towards valuing skills over degrees benefits employers and organizations. By focusing on skills, employers can build teams that possess a diverse range of talents and capabilities. This diversity fosters innovation, creativity, and problem-solving, as individuals with different skill sets bring unique perspectives to the table. Organizations that embrace the "Skills Over Degrees" paradigm create a culture of continuous learning, where employees are encouraged to develop new skills and contribute to the growth of the organization.


It is important to note that the "Skills Over Degrees" paradigm does not dismiss the value of higher education entirely. Rather, it suggests that degrees should be viewed as one piece of the puzzle, complemented by practical skills and real-world experience. Degrees continue to hold significance in certain professions that require specialized knowledge, such as medicine or law. Furthermore, degrees can provide individuals with a well-rounded education and critical thinking skills that are transferable to various industries.


The “Skills over Degree” paradigm creates a competitive advantage:


To thrive in the "Skills Over Degrees" paradigm, individuals must take a proactive approach to their own skill development. They should identify the skills that are in demand in their chosen field and seek opportunities to acquire and demonstrate those skills. This may involve pursuing online courses, attending workshops and conferences, participating in hands-on projects, or collaborating with mentors and industry professionals.


Individuals must cultivate a growth mindset – a belief that skills can be developed and improved over time. This mindset encourages individuals to embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, and seek feedback as a means of growth. By adopting a growth mindset, individuals become more resilient, adaptable, and open to continuous learning.


Imagine an interview setting. Nine of 10 candidates relate to you their education and career experience and one candidate shares their education, experience, and their learning over the past year and how they applied their learning to solve interesting challenges? 


Which candidate has the advantage?


Employers gain a competitive advantage through a focus on skill development by changing the focus on the resume to the focus on the evaluating candidate’s growth mindset.  Due to the ever-changing nature of knowledge, (knowledge doubles every 12 hours see: Knowledge Doubling Curve, Buckminster, Fuller, IBM) what you learned yesterday is as important as your employees’ capacity to learn.


The "Skills Over Degrees" paradigm represents a shift in how we perceive education and career development. It acknowledges that skills and practical knowledge are essential for success in the modern workforce. By prioritizing skills, individuals can gain access to opportunities, overcome barriers, and build successful careers. Employers benefit from a diverse range of talents, fostering innovation and growth.


To thrive in this paradigm, individuals must take a proactive approach to skill development and cultivate a growth mindset. By embracing the "Skills Over Degrees" paradigm, we can create a future where education is accessible, skills are valued, and individuals are empowered to reach their full potential.

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