The Value of Education

In my previous life as owner of an automation and machine building company, part of my job was the hiring of employees. After placing an ad in the local paper I would usually receive 20 or more resumes for a given position. Because I didn’t have time to interview all of the applicants, I would have to evaluate the resumes to determine who the best candidates for the job would be.

If I was looking for an engineer for machine or controls design, the main things I would look for were education and experience. I had resumes cross my desk with every level of education, from a PhD in physics to trade school or military training. After hiring people with various levels of education and broad ranges of experience I began to re-evaluate my priorities in filling positions.

If you were having an operation you would certainly look for a doctor with both the education and experience required to have the highest chance of success. In fact, there are safeguards in place to ensure that people can’t perform surgeries until they have both graduated from an accredited institution and had plenty of experience through residency and supervision. In the automation field there are no such requirements, so I was able to choose from a broad range of candidates.

Chris Guillebeau, author of “The Art of Non-Conformity” and writer of a successful blog, makes a common observation that

A year after you leave college, no one will care what your GPA was.

After obtaining his Masters in International Relations he estimated that only 20% of what he learned had any direct impact on the subject matter, the rest was just designed to keep him in school for the required period of time. This is necessary for the institution to help perpetuate the program.

It takes some time to properly evaluate a resume. The level of education is usually featured prominently at the top of the resume, just under the contact information and objectives or summary. It takes a little longer to read through the experience section, often information must be gleaned from the job history of the applicant. If I were looking for a talented machine designer, I would want to know what kind of project experience they had, what types of design software they had used and whether they had any practical hands-on experience on the shop floor.

It is also important to know what kind of work ethic an applicant has. A large number of brief stays at previous employers is a red flag that would usually end up with me not interviewing the person. This is where education could play a part in my evaluation: if an applicant had graduated from a good program with a decent GPA it could be assumed that they at least had enough drive to have completed the program. I have read that many HR people use this as the primary requirement for interviewing simply because they receive too many resumes to glean the experience information and red flags from them all.

Most of my best controls engineers had at most two year degrees from trade schools such as ITT or VoTech community college programs. None had less than ten years experience however, usually working as a maintenance engineer or technician for at least two industrial facilities. At the large machine builder/integrator that I currently work for there are quite a few long-time employees who do not have a four year degree. Most of the employees under the age of fifty however have at least a Bachelor’s degree from a major institution due mostly to the phenomenon I described previously with HR needing a method to limit the time required to narrow interviews. Are the engineers with degrees any better than the ones without? I don’t believe so. In my opinion the larger automation companies can often miss out on some of the best employees simply due to their size.

A novel suggestion for those who have vast experience but not much formal education: re-arrange your resume with the experience section above the education portion. Make it brief but to the point, list the tools you use in your craft (programming/design software, hands on machining, fabrication or panel-building experience) and a brief explanation of why you believe your experience and abilities make you more valuable than your perceived lack of educational credits. The goal is to get the interview and allow your abilities and personality to shine through.

To those of you who are in a hiring position: if the position you are hiring for is a key one, you may be overlooking some jewels in the gravel by simply using the education level to prequalify candidates.

Good luck and happy automating!


Electrical Engineer and business owner from the Nashville, Tennessee area. I also play music, Chess and Go.

1 Comment on “The Value of Education

  1. Good post — too many people equate “education” with “formal education”. Some of the best people I’ve worked with didn’t have a 4-year degree. Heck, Franz Liszt didn’t go to the conservatory, and Jane Austen didn’t have a writing degree.