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The Paradox of Education vs. Experience

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Many of us make New Year’s resolutions to lose weight, exercise more, and even go back to school to finish a degree we started!  This article will focus on how you can put your experience to work and accomplish at least one of your New Year’s resolutions!

As baby boomers, we expected our careers to last a life time, just like our parents.  But then, something happened in the workforce. We are now in the 21st century and a lot has changed.  No longer does our work experience mean we have “earned” a lifelong career.  Jobs have evolved, requiring more knowledge, skills, and abilities to keep pace with technology and business competition.

In the past, loyalty meant dedication to the company.  Today, loyalty is a limited resource.  Companies now desire a highly educated workforce that can meet challenges and adapt to change.  These are areas that baby boomers and generation X’ers are not accustomed to and ones that past experience may not have prepared them for.

“Talent management” has entered the human resource vernacular.  Companies are in competition for talent and it is up to human resources to recruit talent that meets the organization’s strategies.  As the labor market continues to shrink (due to retiring baby boomers) companies have a conundrum.  They need to replace experience walking out the door with educated individuals, but there are finite candidates.

As a professor of business at a Minnesota college, I have seen countless baby boomers (born 1946-1964) and generation X’ers (born 1965-1981) seek information about the college’s business programs.  There are generally three reasons why:  (1) They cannot move ahead in their organizations without an education, (2) They have been laid off because they do not have the requisite skills to maintain employment, and (3) They are working in organizations that they desire to leave, but their experience alone won’t land them another job.

Baby boomers and gen X’ers who do not have a formal education or degree should not despair, however.  There are options available that can take advantage of their experience.  One such option is to attain an industry credential in an area such as human resources (PHR/SPHR), quality (ASQ), project management (PMP), or management (CM), to name a few.  Each of these credentials has prerequisites for eligibility and an associated credentialing or certification exam.  If you don’t meet the prerequisites, you can engage in short-term training, take a college course or two, or ask your employer for the opportunity to work in an area that will help you meet the prerequisites.  Certificate programs routinely have no prerequisites.  As an example, the Institute of Certified Professional Managers ( offers the Foundations of Management (or FoM) certificate program for employees interested in transitioning to a management or supervisory role.

Another option is to research a two or four-year college that offers Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) or credit for prior learning.  PLA allows you to earn college credit for learning acquired from work experience, professional training, military training, or open source web learning (see This means that you don’t have to start at zero!  Colleges that offer PLA traditionally have a substantial support network to help adult learners adjust to returning to college after many years.   PLA can shorten the amount of time it takes to complete a degree, reduce tuition costs, and minimize the impact of college on the learner’s life (i.e. family, work, hobbies, etc.).  Accelerated courses may be offered that can reduce class time from the full semester term.  Private colleges and universities can offer greater opportunities for success for two reasons, (1) Private institutions tend to operate as businesses, and thus, are able to adapt more quickly than public colleges/universities, and (2) Private institutions have the ability to allocate resources to support leading educational practices.  Southern New Hampshire University and Western Governors are examples of institutions leading the way on competency-based education which targets adult learners.

Even if you are in a job that feels secure because the company has taken care of you in the past, it is up to you to look out for your best interest.  Don’t wait to encounter an uncomfortable employment situation.  Your experience does mean something.  Follow through on your New Year’s resolution and go put your experience to work!


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