Talent Acquisition

Academic versus Vocational Qualifications – Which Wins?

With university tuition fees at approx £10k a year (Reddin Survey for university tuition fees), alternative advice to young adults seeking guidance in which career path to take has never been more vital when deciding whether to pursue a degree or follow a vocational path instead.

Recruitment is renowned for being divisive with some hiring companies having a low barrier to entry with no minimum expectation frequently focusing on sales experience rather than grades; this is then polarised by those – typically those who work in corporate circles who seek graduates preferably from a reputable institution.

I chose to write about this topic for a number of reasons, given I recruit for the recruitment sector I often discuss this entry point with fellow business owners about what is best….

Grad caliber

Firstly speaking from personal experience. I am not a graduate myself although I completed an HND with distinctions in Marketing which then let me to partly complete my CIM Diploma in Marketing – a post-grad level qualification. However, my funding got pulled and I never completed that not converted my HND into the full degree for which I was heading for a 1st given my distinctions- So would you call me ‘Graduate caliber’? I went to a grammar school and got fully involved in many aspects of being in a privileged position, including debating society and public speaking. For me, it wasn’t just about the academics- I did ok, I was never top of the class and got 8 GCSEs and scraped 3 A levels (if a D and 2 Es count??)

So what is it about my academics that have stood me in good stead – truly I don’t think it is my academic prowess that has made me successful. I think it was my grounding, my focus, and tenacity; my natural communication skills. Has a lack of degree hindered me- it has never once been questioned in 20 years…. but am I of a different era? Let’s explore with someone more relevant to now….

Someone I met in 2011 when she had 4 years experience and was still only 21 is SOPHIE SEVER of Finlay James Recruitment @FinlayJamesLtd – I asked Sophie whether more companies should be open to non-graduates and what her own experience was:

I started at parity when I was 16 straight from school, did an NVQ and found a job at parity was a business admin role (which wasn’t for me) after a year I then moved into a resourcing role at parity placing IT contractors into public sector. Was super successful won competitions for number 1 consultant (a free trip to Vegas), in 2008 and 2010 and a top ten consultant in 2008 to Marbella. Then I wanted a fresh challenge as I reached a ceiling there. I felt and needed something exciting which is when I met you and you introduced me to FJ in 2011, where I’ve been for 8 years in May this year and absolutely love it!

I’ve been promoted a number of times and am now an associate director working on key accounts globally. Now i’m 31 years old and have 14 years of recruitment experience.”

What about those employers who prefer academic qualifications over vocation?

“Well, I’m not an academic, always enjoyed school but not for the education part, more the social. Definitely more of a people person than a swot, terrible at maths and like most, I fell into recruitment after not really knowing what I wanted to do after school, and I’m so pleased I did! I get a buzz placing candidates to this day and matching great talent to my top clients who I’ve worked with for many years now.”

What advice would you give to a younger you?

“My advice to people like me who don’t want to do the uni thing is to do an apprenticeship for a well-established business to get some working experience, FJ likes to hire people with working experience even if it’s just 6 Months. I helped a family friend recently she was in college and came here for two weeks work experience, she’s 18 and made a fab impression. At the end of the two
weeks, John offered her a resourcing role to support me, to join once she’s completed college. She’s now 5 months in and has closed 3 deals – she’s only 19.

And one final point:

“If you are a people person, and not an academic don’t feel like you have to join university to make other people happy. Do it for yourself, trust me you’ll be pleased when your earning and not paying off loads of debt – if you are lucky like me, you will have supportive parents too”.

Shannon Rowlands has worked in recruitment for my business since she graduated from her degree in 2017. Shannon tweets as @QuiRecruitment. I asked Shannon whether her degree gave her an advantage over her peers in recruitment who do not possess a qualification such as her BA Hons.

“I don’t think the degree gave me the advantage per se but I think it gave me confidence and life skills over staying at home in my town (in Wales). I had to put myself out there. Having a degree forced me to build relationships quickly and recruitment is a career that is all about using those skills to develop long term partnerships. So the degree itself isn’t whats enhanced my position; it was more about being away from family and what I needed to do to become the confident adult that I am now.”

What advice would you give to recruitment companies who are considering hiring those with more vocational experience over academics:

“When you are interviewing, think about the person’s actual life skills. what have they done outside education = what is their attitude, what are their behaviours? A degree is not a ticket to success in recruitment and is not a guarantee to someone being better than the next person without one.”

I also chose to write this post as a parent to two teenagers, one of whom is commencing GCSE options this year with considerations already being discussed as to her career choices. She wants to become a tattoo artist and body piercer and thanks to accessing information available to her – and I do not mean careers advisers in schools! That’s a whole different topic and don’t get me started on how our education system needs a total overhaul- we have a shortage of skills such as IT developers and yet there is still no emphasis on this within the national curriculum. Skill gaps are not understood by the draconian education system. In secondary schools there needs to be a shift towards developing these young people for this world now- lessons in social media, financial planning, climate change, Technology and development, languages from primary age with the relevant dictionary.

Going back to the point of this blog, as employers, I would encourage you to look beyond the degree. Think about the advantage of hiring a ‘Sophie’; raw talent, tenacity, mouldable, prepared to roll her sleeves up and get stuck in. It is an irony that as recruiters we often consult clients on thinking differently about the profiles of people, using science to ensure the right psychometric scores are met; however, it is the truest  statement to say that recruitment itself is a vocation- the definition is “a strong feeling of suitability for a particular career or occupation” and anyone who has endured/survived/conquered more than a couple of years in recruitment has indeed proven this…..

Apprenticeship schemes are available to those seeking alternative routes and the “academy” method of growing your own and hoping some stick is back in fashion just because god damned good recruiters are so hard to find….

What are your opinions; is a vocational background more relevant now than a degree? I would love to know your experiences and testimony.

By Lysha Holmes

Lysha Holmes is founding director of Qui Recruitment established in 2005 to completely challenge the traditionally poorly perceived service offered by other Rec 2 Rec providers. Lysha as Qui Recruitment is dedicated to representing the best talent to the best suited roles, focussing on placing recruiters of all levels in a candidate led service across the NW.