The Death of Formalised Education?

A coat-of-arms-bearing sheet of paper has long been the key to a successful career.

A tertiary degree or qualification has been the first item on the list of requirements for new job applicants.

But there’s a trend emerging, a trend away from education, and towards learning.

And there’s an important difference.

Education is an institution. It’s a process. What employers need is not a process, but an outcome. What they need is not education, but learning. And the former doesn’t always guarantee the latter. Education doesn’t always mean a person will be educated. It doesn’t always mean they will have learned.

Employees are moving towards hiring for competency and skill set, rather than for qualifications. And more-so (at least in service / ‘people industry’ type roles), they’re hiring for soft skills, not hard skills. For ‘human factors’, not vocation.

Seth Godin believes “…we give too little respect to the other skills when we call them ‘soft’ and imply that they’re optional. It turns out that what actually separates thriving organisations from struggling ones are the difficult-to-measure attitudes, processes and perceptions of the people who do the work. Culture defeats strategy, every time.”

In some (less technical, more practical) industries, the hard skills can be learned on the job, or through apprenticeships/internships/mentorships. The ‘soft skills’ are much harder to teach – they’re the process of years of character shaping.

To this end, hire good people, who are good with people, who care about people. 80% of the selection criteria for new staff is right there.

You need to hire to fit your culture and core values.

Qualifications and experience rank way down the list when it comes to priorities of potential staff qualities. You can teach them systems. It’s a lot harder to teach someone to be a good person.

In a service-based industry, hire for personality, for empathy, for communication. Not for experience, expertise or qualifications. Sure, they’re nice to have, but not if the personality box isn’t ticked.

Now of course, this applies less to industries where the need for hard skills outweighs that of soft skills. I’d rather have an arsehole brain surgeon with a 99% success rate, than a 50% success rater with a great bedside manner. The more we delve in to hard science (the narrower the band of accuracy and the smaller the margin for error), the more formal education is important. The less ‘hard’ the science, the more we should hire for learning and ‘soft skills’ and provide further learning through apprenticeships/internships/mentorships or professional development.

But there are of course benefits to formal education.

As an employer, it demonstrates ‘grit’. A resilience and ‘stick-with-it-ness’. It shows that the candidate is able to commit to a process, and has the discipline to follow through to completion. Of course, this can be demonstrated in numerous ways, and the completion of an arts degree demonstrates the grit needed in a science-based industry just as well as a science degree would.

In an industry-specific formalised education, there may also be a tendency for the ‘sunk costs’ to encourage greater longevity in that field. Of course, this isn’t necessarily a positive (and can result in a lack of ‘buy in’ or personal investment, or even worse a hedonic treadmill of unhappiness), but it may at least help to develop a stable staff team that gives you the time to outweigh the sunk costs with genuine continuing education and professional development.

Having personally completed undergraduate and post- graduate science degrees, the benefit I found was more macro than micro. The skills I developed were meta. I learned how to research. How to think critically. I learned how to apply the scientific method to overcome cognitive biases. First year introductory units in related (but not specific) fields like psychology, statistics, reproductive biology and biological anthropology have been as useful since, as those that were at the core of my degrees. The move of tertiary institutions towards more general first year degrees is a response to a deepening understanding of the need to be able to solve problems by drawing on seemingly unrelated fields.

The globalisation of learning in the information age is lowering barriers to entry for knowledge.

‘Soft’ skills are becoming a premium, and in certain ‘people facing’ industries at least, education is giving way to learning – regardless of what form it takes.

Dan Williams

Dan Williams


Dan Williams is the Director of Range of Motion and leads a team of Exercise Physiologists, Sports Scientists, Physiotherapists and Coaches. He has a Bachelor of Science (Exercise and Health Science) and a Postgraduate Bachelor of Exercise Rehabilitation Science from The University of Western Australia, with minors in Biomechanics and Sport Psychology.