A degree of essential skills?

Does this count if I argue with myself?

Recently we have offered our dear, valued readers a number of quite nuanced posts, tackling sensitive issues and asking some big questions. From debate on frankly ridiculous referendum guidance, to the problems facing all at Dale Farm, to equalities monitoring information, we’ve tackled it recently.

However, today is a return to a simple, straightforward old school rant, so if this is not your thing then look away now and come back tomorrow.

Todays rant takes us back to a pet topic of mine, and was brought up as I delved into a new shared drive area, which thanks to the vaguaries of ICT randomly became available to me. It covered recruitment, and laid out a dozen or more job descriptions which had been recruited to over the past few years. As I looked through them they covered a wide range of work areas, and required a huge range of skills and experience. But do you know what sat at the top of each person spec, regardless of the job or grade?

“Educated to degree standard”

Some added an “or equivalent” at the end of that short sentence, but regardless it invariably sat there in black and white, usually followed by the capital ‘E’ for essential.

What does this even mean?! It doesn’t appear to matter whether or not the degree was in any relevant area or subject, how well they did, what university they went to or when they did it, just that at some point in their life they studied and got that precious slip of paper. By inference, if you chose for whatever reason not to go to university then obviously you are not capable of fulfilling that role.

I am firmly of the point of view that what qualifies you to do your job or potentially take on a different role are your skills and experience. Being knowledgable and capable is what should matter, rather than the few years you may have spent getting a Desmond fifteen years ago in an unrelated field. The academic process is not the most important element of study, it is the skills and knowledge you pick up along the way. If you choose to do this through a degree level of study then all is well and good, but too often excellent candidates are put off because they chose to gain these skills and experience in different ways.

Some of the brightest, most capable and skilled officers I’ve ever met have been through various degree programmes themselves, from the under-pressure NGDP scheme to various local schemes. Their time studying exposed them to new ideas and concepts, and allowed them to build up a rich layer of theoretical knowledge before putting this into practice as they start or continue their local government careers.

Some of the most self-obsessed, arrogant, incapable officers I’ve ever met have been through various degree programmes as well. Their time studying made them believe they were better than others around them, and gave them a level of theoretical knowledge but no ability to even begin putting this into practice. They rely on the letters after their name (invariably adding the letters to their e-mail signature as well) to encourage others to show them the respect and deference they feel they deserve.

To be fair and balanced, exactly the same can be said of those who have not studied or got degrees of their own. Some have spent the time in employment, actively gathering skills and experience and building networks to develop their talent whilst sometimes picking up some theoretical knowledge to challenge themselves. Others have bumbled their way through, ignoring valuable lessons and thinking that they don’t need to try to learn in order to get better, relying simply on surviving longer than others to progress.

Study can do an awful lot of good, and should be encouraged. Study in related local government fields will be of long term benefit to individuals and the sector, so should also be encouraged. Using just any academic achievement as a filter does no justice to the work put in by strong candidates and filters out others who have chosen to take a different route. By all means, ask candidates for a job to prove they have knowledge and theory to back up their practice, but stop making it an essential requirement for just about any post over a certain level. This simply stops talented officers from progressing as their equals do.

We need all the good staff we can get these days, regardless of their academic standing.  The sooner we learn this, the better.

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at: welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com 

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9 Comments on “A degree of essential skills?”

  1. finally someone with some common sense! what is this obsession with having a degree for any job above a certain grade? I work with a team of people who are all different, some with degrees, some with professional qualifications, some with neither. What counts are their skills and experience, it doesn’t matter to me where that came from. I have shortlisted for jobs in organisations and seen the HR people remove people from the pile because they don’t have a degree, without even looking at the experience and I’ve had to fight to get people interviewed. When ou are writing JDs, give some serious thought to how important a degree is and put it in the desirable box, not essential. It feels like discrimination to me…..you lose out on so many great people not even applying. (oh and I have a degree, but it doesn’t make me better at my job)

  2. A great post.

    But come on, we know what this about: who wants some autodidactic oik with ideas above their station working for them?

    Its not just local gov that this happens in either. I even saw an ad for volunteer post for which a ‘Masters Degree’ was an essential requirement. A volunteer post!

    Diversity of workforce is touch-stone for many in both sectors, but diversity of ideas is a different matter. It’s a long-held form of protectionism and soon may it diminish, but I’m not holding my breath.


    A bitter and unqualified autodidact 😉

  3. Tom Phillips Says:

    Always thought “requirements” like this were a lazy way of selecting the right candidate. Like “must have had several years relevant experience in related fields” or “previous relevant local government experience essential”. The issue of graduate/non grad also weighs heavy against older applicants. Will the shortlister/interviewer go for a possibly bright, but potentially clueless graduate just because they tick that “E” box, or someone with 20 or 30 years time served and experience gained, who didn’t/couldn’t go to university?

  4. Ed Says:

    Not only is this a golden post, it also has a Calvin & Hobbes cartoon in it. Absolutely spot on.

  5. Jeremiah Says:

    Well, I can see the point, but I don’t totally agree.

    What does it even mean? It should mean that this person can work without constant supervision, find things out for themselves and explain their ideas. I agree not all graduates can actually do that, and people who aren’t graduates may be able to demonstrate those capabilities in other ways (which is what the “or equivalent” should be about) – but as a quick and dirty first cut it’s not been bad, historically.

    I accept that it doesn’t work when you have candidates of very different ages and backgrounds (which is more common than it used to be), and in a future of massively expensive degrees it may well become useless. But what’s the alternative? What people tell you in job applications about their skills and experience isn’t always objective, to say the least.

    I would never let HR do the shortlisting for me – but if you’ve got a day to shortlist from 150 applications down to 6 (as I have had), you do need some objective criteria that are based solely on the application form and quick to apply, even if a bit dirty. Lazy? I don’t think so – just busy.

  6. […] from issues in September we asked why people thought having a degree was a necessary skill for many local government jobs, discussed a provision in the localism bill that provided for non-binding referenda (the point of […]

  7. […] through two different pieces.  We think graduates are a good thing by the way, even if sometimes we rant about some of them!  We even tried to offer some advice to those who are new to local government, […]

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