You Don't Need A Lot Of Degrees To Get A Job Saving The World

There’s a talent development gap in the social sector. Kids are coming out of college with abundant analytical skills, but that’s not what these employers want. They want experience, leadership, and humility.

If you’re seeking a career in the social sector, an advanced university degree may not be the best ticket. While many prospective staff have abundant analytical and research skills, the employers rank leadership, problem solving, and communication as more important. They also think such attributes may be better gained on the job, or by working abroad, than in a classroom.

That’s the message of a new report from the Amani Institute, a think tank. The report, which surveys social sector executives, found that there is a gap between what graduates are offering and what leading organizations need.

One leader at a major international children’s group, told Amani: "Employees need relevant field experience that builds hard skills such as technical work or project management. Work experience in general is very helpful. Too many students go straight from undergrad to [their] master’s never having a real job."

Amani, which is based in Nairobi, Kenya, spoke to 43 leaders in 34 organizations, as well as 39 "future leaders" with less than three years of work experience. Several leaders said field experience and evidence of leadership were more important than a degree, wherever it might be from. "Skills are best learned in an immersive environment—i.e. in the country or context that is being studied," said one, from an AIDS charity.

Another added: "I am no longer impressed by academic backgrounds or credentials, and I pay little attention to them. What ultimately stands out are the humility and respect towards realities and circumstances they are not familiar with."

Employers are particularly keen on hires with initiative, enthusiasm, and a willingness to learn. Several said their worst recruits exhibited over-confidence, and a "sense of entitlement."

"My most disappointing hires were those who were always coming up with reasons for why something won’t work, waiting to be told what needs to be achieved, and performing the role as a task that needs completion as opposed to achieving the goal," another respondent said.

The report is chastening for universities, as it indicates that what they are best at—"hard skills"—aren’t valued by social employers as most important. Colleges excel at providing a "high-quality academic grounding" and "analytical skills," it says. But these featured ninth and eighth on a list of 11 most relevant attributes.

"The education of 21st-century problem solvers needs itself to move into the future," says Roshan Paul, president of the Amani Institute. "Aspiring leaders must equip themselves with apprenticeships, practical skills, and personal leadership qualities so they’re employable and so they can create social impact. They should train for their careers the way a doctor or athlete or soldier would train."

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  • Sajeeds304

    The article contains lots of truth. But when you go for a job in the social sector the criteria is to have a masters degree. This has influenced many people to do a masters degree. I am against the jobs in the social sector. Why it has become another profession. Many organizations pay a lots of salary and the society get a very little. I think the term 'jobs' in the social sector is not suitable. Many people use the term 'activist' but they can be people who are not working in the social sector. So, I think we should remove the commercialization of employees in the social sector. Otherwise, everything even charity will also be commercialized in the future. 

  • Andy Nyce

    Sajeed, this overlooks the fact that since social sector jobs do not generally pay as well as private sector jobs, there is less incentive for many to go and take on those roles - even though they have the skills and the knowhow to really make a difference and actually create real benefits to people in need. The reality is that many people don't have the economic means to take low paying jobs just because they are better for the social good. In that framework, the commercialisation of charity is actually a positive - flipping the perspective on it to think of charity as a business where the product is a socially positive outcome, rather than our current model which decries any charitable organisation that pays their leadership team competitive salaries.

  • Natasha

    As a recruiter I have to agree with you. I have interviewed hundreds of people with skills on paper but when they hit the streets they crash and burn. It's hard to watch someone who has spend tens of thousands of dollars getting educated and then come out without any bankable skills. We as a society need more practical post-secondary education programs as well as human resources departments that don't demand a prospective employee feel that they only have a chance at a job if they have a masters degree. It's a treadmill, a really bad one. 

  • LaurenNisbet

    It really seems like a no-win situation for students these days - we leave high school thinking that a university education is the ticket to the job of our dreams only to graduate four years later and realize that we actually have none of the skills employers are looking for. It seems like the only solution is to continuously go above and beyond, finding opportunities to gain the type of experience employers find valuable in other ways - through volunteering and extracurricular activities.

    At the same time I don't think academic credentials are meaningless - the trouble is that they've become the norm. To NOT pursue an education automatically puts you at a disadvantage - it's not that employers want applicants without an education, it's that they're looking for applicants who have an education AND (insert job skills here). It's like running on an endless treadmill - the more we do, the higher the expectation, and we never seem to be getting any closer to the finish line.

  • Ryan Steinbach

    Getting a job is a lot easier said than done, especially in the social sector. Many students go straight to grad school because they can't find jobs. As a senior in college and current job seeker in the social sector, I see "Graduate degree in XXXXX" or "2-3 years experience in XXXXXXX" all over the place. The social sector want's experience above all else. So what am I suppose to do? Try and and a job I don't want at a big company willing to give me entry level training and development so I can get the experience the social sector wants? Or maybe I should sign up for one of these fellowship programs that doesn't even cover my cost of living. There has to be a better way.

  • @ClaireGeorgia

    As a student, how would I go about gaining employment in the social sector if I have no previous direct experience? It's evidently critical and I am continuously looking to gain that kind of hands on experience. However I do believe that those with stronger academic backgrounds and those studying the relevant sector are often chosen. I believe that is why students aim to specialize in their field of interest. To gain that "competitive advantage".