“Employers want degrees.”

There are so many problems with this popular idea.

It lacks imagination, ignores the things employers really want that a degree is sometimes a proxy for, and forgets that divergence from the crowd is more likely to make you stand out than sameness.

But it’s worse than that.  It’s misleading even as a rule of thumb based on data.  Most people will do things like add up the number of employers that list a degree as something they want, or compare the pay of those jobs to jobs without a degree preference, or add up earnings or employment for degree holders vs. non degree holders.  All of these are the same basic process.  Take the average of a giant aggregate of data from individual employers and say that’s what “employers” want.

Let’s examine how stupid this is as a guide to your own career building efforts.

Say you poll employers on what matters most to them in hiring.  You get a list of the top 10 things from each.  Something ranked #1 gets 10 points, #2 gets 9 points, and so on.  Here’s a hypothetical employer’s preferences:

  1. Knows Ruby on Rails
  2. Familiar with PHP
  3. Socially affable
  4. Self-motivated
  5. High attention to detail
  6. Previous work experience
  7. College degree
  8. Hobbies outside of coding
  9. Knowledge of our industry
  10. Able to work weird hours

Remember, just like when you make a list of wants when buying a house, you never get everything on your list.  Employers don’t either, but instead hire the candidate with the best mix of the most valuable items.

OK, so that’s one employer.  If we had similar rankings from a million more employers, we’d notice something.  No two employers want the same things.  In fact, no one employer wants the same thing for two different roles.  In fact, no two interviewers at the same employer for the same role want the same thing!

So what happens if we take this diverse array of “stuff employers care about”, and add up the scores for each item?  College degrees come out looking like the most important thing.

Why?  Because it’s so big and generic that it’s the one item that lands somewhere on pretty much everyone’s list.  But it’s never number one.  It’s almost never even in the top three.  It’s a middle to bottom level item on every list.  But the top 3 are so different for each company and role, added together and averaged out, no one item will stand out.

This dramatically over-inflates the value of degrees, because it lumps each individual employer wish list into one and says that’s what “employers” – a non-existent monolithic category – want, while misrepresenting the fact that no individual employer cares much about it compared to other things.

Imagine if we had data showing that guys with short hair get dates a lot more than guys with long hair.  It would be pretty stupid to go cut your hair so that you can get a date.  Why?  Because you’re not trying to get a date with “girls”.  You’re trying to get a date with one specific girl, and chances are that hair is nowhere near the top of the long list of things that make her open to dating you.  In fact, she’s likely to be turned off by someone who tries to win her unique, individual attention by changing your appearance to match the preferences of the average of the aggregate of her sex.

It’s the same with employers.

You aren’t trying to impress “employers” as an abstract collective.  You are trying to win an opportunity with one specific employer.  Studying the least common denominator among the aggregate group is a terrible way to go about it.  Pick specific employers of interest to you, figure out what each of them value, and focus on the top items on the list.

Even when degree is mentioned, employers don’t mean it.  At Praxis, we’ve helped hundreds of non-degreed people get jobs that claim to require degrees.

Why are degrees so prevalent, even if not prominent, on employer lists?  Because it represents a vague set of assumptions based on their experience.  It means, “If you’re not at least as good as most of the people I’ve met with degrees, this probably isn’t the job for you.”

That’s it.  That’s not hard to beat!  You just have to be at least a little more interesting than the average degree holder.  And if you’re fulfilling their higher items on the list, you’ve already done that.

Whether degrees or anything else, don’t ask “What do employers want”.  Focus on what specific employers want for specific opportunities, gain that, and prove it through demonstration, not empty words and statuses on a resume.

PS – This doesn’t even mention an even more important fact.  As Taylor Pearson notes, we are moving closer to “The End of Jobs“, and in this emerging world, putting all the focus on getting a job is dangerous.  You need to be thinking about yourself as Me, Inc., thinking in terms of opportunities, projects, contracts, freelance, entrepreneurship, and agile, innovative ways to create value.  That’s the opposite of the get a degree mindset!