College Degree vs Experience ~ Is One More Valuable Than the Other?

Which is more important?  

A College Degree or Actual Hands on Experience?  

Which makes you more qualified?

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Now that I’ve stirred up a hornets nest with just the question, let me continue with my journey and then I’ll get your thoughts.

I’ll start with this…..Education comes in two packages…One is learned from textbooks and one from hands on experience. Both are important. The textbooks explain the “why” behind the “I do”……   More on this in a bit….

As I continue down the path of this weeks posts, it’s important to explain the role of “Education” in my journey to discover What I Want to Be When I Grow Up.

As I explained yesterday, I was set to go to college right out of high school. Not really knowing what to do, I applied to Cal State Fullerton and to the University of California Irvine. I was accepted at both. Right before classes began, I choose not to go. I broke my mother’s heart. I was tired of sitting in classes learning stuff. I wanted to get out in the world and start experiencing and learning hands on. I had a job for a couple of years and I loved it.

As it turned out, I had just gotten a new job with a local home improvement store. I started moving up the ladder and even relocated an hour away when I was 18 (dragging my best friend). Soon everyone started jumping ship to this new HUGE home improvement warehouse everyone was going crazy over. I was one of the last to jump ship. But I did. Yes, I had just turned 20 years old, and I was about to begin a 22 year career with Home Depot.

Home Depot was still in its early years then. I joined the 63rd store. When I left, there was way over 2,000. It was fun being part of a new young company. The founders really believed in letting you own your store / department / area and let me tell you, you learned a lot about business. I credit the great business mind I have now to the lessons I learned through the years. Some I learned the hard way.

I was a sponge from day one. I loved it all. And during the course of time, I pretty much did it all too. My claim to fame if you will was being able to relate to being a cashier, a sales associate, a dept lead, an assist manager, a store manager since I had walked in all those shoes. Even when I left the stores I still spent quality time in various regional and divisional roles. I moved to three states and at one point got to be part of developing not only new stores, but helping to grow 9 states as part of the Pacific Northwest Division. Which by the way, spending time in Utah & Montana, definitely reinforced how much I hate being cold.  LOL.

yes, I actually got to be part of all these states at one point or another

But I don’t tell you this to impress you. No, I tell you this to explain why even with great intentions, I ended up not going back to school “after my year off” (famous last words of many a teen).

I was so busy “experiencing” and “learning” and “growing” I thought I was learning all the stuff some college could teach me. I learned everything you could about Profit and Loss, Stats, Ordering, Managing, Leadership, Human Resources, you name it. Home Depot put me through some great training classes and even better, my passion became about teaching and developing others.

People would ask me, what do I want to be remembered for long after I left HD and I would always say the same thing. I want to be remembered as a coach, a mentor as someone who helped teach them great tools to be successful. And to toot my own horn for a moment, I think that is how I will be remembered.

Ok, great Tammy, how does this all tie into what the heck you are trying to say here????

At one point I was Director of Learning overseeing like 9 states. Our HRVP got promoted and I was given the temporary assignment of overseeing our HR Department. Lucky me got to do both jobs. And I LOVED it. I had a blast that year as we were going through an exciting time in HR for our company with lots of changes. I got exposure to even bigger things within our company that really drilled into my head the “big hat vs little hat” that is often going on in any company (Store needs vs Company needs).

Then I got hit by the bus. The decision I had made 17 years prior finally bit me in the butt. For the first time my 15 year career (at the time) I was not able to achieve a position I wanted due to a lack of a degree. Forget how successful I was in the role, I didn’t have the piece of paper that someone felt was more important than the experience and execution. I could not keep the position I had been working hard to make permanent. I was about to begin a series of lessons on College Degrees vs Experience.

Realizing that being mad wasn’t going to solve the situation, (don’t get me wrong, I was still hurt) I realized that I needed to make a decision, if I wanted that next level, I might have to get a degree. This was hard not because I hated school, I actually love learning. I think it was more mentally hard because it was a turning point in the company. For the first time it became about having a college degree vs experience. In most companies that might seem normal, but for our’s, it was famous for “kids” working their way up from cart pushers to Vice Presidents. And these were some fantastic minds who learned in the trenches.

So I enrolled in an online college to get my “degree” that would teach me more than I already knew. So I did what a lot of working adults do, I worked 50-60 hours a week, traveled (remember I covered 9 states at the time) and went to school on-line. What I discovered was, I was now spending thousands of dollars to learn the “book” reason behind what I already knew. I was in actual debates with people about how to correctly do something that I was doing and they “hoped” to do someday. It was crazy. But I pushed through.

After a year of doing this, I needed to make a change for family reasons and I took a step back career wise and moved to Arizona. The position was still great and I got to travel all over Arizona (even New Mexico for a year). However, during the transition and all that was on my plate traveling between Seattle and Arizona for a few months, I had to put school on hold. Once things settled down, I had to decide if and when I would return to school.

As life would have it, I didn’t. I had a lot going on and school costs racked up and there was a part of me that regretted going into debt all that money for a year to really not learn anything new.  So I put it off again. Then a year or so later, I was hit in the face again by that same decision. Another position I was more than qualified for, was denied due to a piece of paper. I was even apologized too but “rules” were “rules”.

I remember the hurt I felt at the time that here I dedicated over half my life to a place, proved through my performance what I was capable of and a little piece of paper decided my fate once again.

But, as I’ve shared through my blog many times. I don’t dwell on the bad that happens. I try to learn from it and move on. I try to live my life without regrets. I made the best decisions I could at the time with the information I had. But if I was to have only one regret, it might be around this school decision.

Not that I didn’t go 25 years ago. I do not regret that. Had I gone, I never would have ended up at Home Depot and I never would have gained all the wonderful, valuable business and leadership knowledge I have. The lessons I learned about providing great customer service. I wouldn’t trade that for the world. I thank Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank (founders of HD) for all they exposed me to and allowed me to do. I have no regrets about that decision. I loved my overall experience there.

My regret is not finishing the online courses once I moved to Arizona. Because once again the debate of Degree vs Experience is impacting my life.

As I stated yesterday, I am now looking to go back out into Corporate America. Guess what seems to be the #1 qualification on jobs that I am more than qualified for? You got it… Bachelor’s Degrees.  Yes, the piece of paper is haunting me again.  LOL.

Now it is about convincing someone that my experience is just as valuable as the paper. That the 22 years at HD and the almost 4 years of running my own business has more than given me the tools needed to be successful in many areas. My proven leadership, customer service and business skills would be a great asset to any company.

I do not write this long-winded (sorry) post to feel sorry for myself or to knock anyone that has worked hard to achieve their degree. I applaud those that have their degree. I know how hard it can be to learn new stuff in areas you may or may not have experience in. I know that someone who shows dedication to completing college will no doubt show that same dedication in learning the hands on experience they will gain.

My issue lies in the theory one is better than the other. Sure there are some jobs that you absolutely need the college experience before diving right in. But we have swung this pendulum too far. Businesses are foolish to turn away great experience just because someone lacks the degree. Businesses need a combination of both. Each brings a talent that is valuable and if hired right, will help any company exceed. Experience hits the ground running and making an impact, degrees will learn and grow into fabulous leaders. Those with both are definitely a prize.

I do not say this only because I am in this spot. No, I say this from experience. I’ve had the pleasure of working with those that achieved their degrees either first or later in life and I’ve had the pleasure of working with those that never did. Both sides have their fair share of idiots. Both sides have their share of exceptional leaders. But no matter how you slice it, the perfect person for the job is the one that has the ability to achieve the goals set out by the company and who help the company, its people and it’s customers to the next level. Regardless of how they got there.

I have often wondered through the years, how much great talent is missed by a company by either picking solely by experience or by college education. We say we want the best talent possible, but do we often miss out due to false beliefs that one is better than the other?

College Degree vs Experience???  

I ask you….. 

Is one really better than the other?

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Thank you for hanging in there through my long post. (if you didn’t just skip to the bottom – which we know some of you did – LOL)

I promise to go back to my shorter ones now. But this has always been an important debate regardless of which side you are on. If talent is being missed due to false assumptions, we all pay the price.

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Hopping off my soap box…..  thanks for indulging me     😀

~~~till we laugh again~~~