Short of finding someone who has both the degree and the experience would you hire someone with a degree and no experience or someone with experience but no degree?
Is there a rational behind the equivalency of a degree with certain number of years of experience?
To make those questions more specific and relevant for this audience: would you rather hire someone with 5 years of programming experience but no degree or someone with a Computer Science degree but no programming experience? How many years of programming experience does it take to make up for a computer science degree?
Before attempting to answer such questions it is critical to identify and analyze the differences between a degree (the work to obtain one) and the real life experience.
The most fundamental difference between the two is the focus that each has. The real life experience focuses on HOW things work – years of experience will help one become a master of a given trade and remain a master for as long as that trade does not experience any radical changes. A college degree on the other hand focuses on WHY things work the way they work. The HOW part of a degree is generalized – how things should work but not necessarily how they work in a given implementation.
An analogy that makes the difference clearer would be that of the experienced mechanic versus the mechanical engineer. A mechanic that has spent 5 years working on fixing and maintaining BMWs is likely a master of the trade – he can diagnose and fix BMW problems very quickly and efficiently. A mechanical engineer on the other side may have no clue of the particular BMW implementation – he knows how cars in general are put together and why they are put together that way but not how to fix a BMW.
Now we can begin to answer the questions we posed at the beginning.
Which one would you hire? Clearly the answer is: it depends! If you need someone to handle a well defined task that does not require creativity but simply diligence and efficiency then an experienced person is clearly better. But, if you need someone that can easily adapt to different scenarios, if you need someone who can learn new technologies faster and consequently have lower probability of becoming obsolete despite the evolution of the trade in question, if creativity is important to the job then the degree has a clear edge over the experience.
Can one make up for a degree with number of years of experience? No, it is not possible! Please do not confuse this with the case when an individual dedicates an equivalent amount of time to studying the trade in question, in essence doing the work that is required to obtain a degree – I consider such person a degreed person regardless of whether a formal degree was obtained or not. When I say ‘No’ I am speaking strictly in terms of work experience. A mason can spend a lifetime laying bricks and never learn how to calculate the load on a load bearing wall or beam. Experience provides one with what I call “superficial knowledge” that lacks the foundation and can not be used to derive new knowledge – for example: you know that if you touch an electrical wire (household voltage) with a dry wooden pole you will not be electrocuted but you can not extrapolate from that the new knowledge that if you get on top of an wooden chair you can safely touch a single wire with your bare hands (remember, a single wire only – if you grab two you will be the light bulb!). A degree provides solid knowledge that can be used for generating new knowledge – experience teaches you that touching the wire with a dry wooden pole is safe whereas school teaches you what the electricity is and how it works. An electrical engineer does not need to be told about the dry wooden pole he can deduct that knowledge and a lot more from the foundational knowledge that he has obtained in school.
There, I have made my point.
Before you react to this please keep in mind that:
- I am comparing degree versus experience on a specific trade;
- A degree does not necessarily mean a formal degree – but rather that one has paid his dues in time and energy spent studying the trade;
- I am comparing two individuals with similar levels of intelligence/aptitude.
Feel free to leave your comments here.