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When does experience trump education?

When does experience trump education?

Of late I’ve been trying to parse the general opinion among friends and colleagues as to what sectors of aid and development require some form of educational expertise and which benefit from experience. I ask in part because I don’t think my own work in communications requires the sort of skills that can’t be obtained on the job or through training, but also because I’ve encountered circular logic in arguments from people in other sectors.

Most people would agree that there are certain sectors that require technical qualification – say water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), health and agriculture – though the level differs depending on the job. Other sectors like security, communications, rights work and even monitoring and evaluation (M&E) are consistently deemed areas where experience counts for as much, if not more, than a mere qualification from a well-regarded place of higher education.

Within the three aforementioned sectors, we prefer to have professionals with recognized qualifications. Yet even there we find inconsistencies. Doctors and nurses have to have a qualification from a certified university, but midwives, in particular if they are nationals working in aid and development, often seem to be exempt because they have experience.

We want our engineers to be certified if they’re from a developed nation and drilling wells, but again nationals who’ve been digging wells for years need no such pieces of paper. The same goes for those working in the agriculture sector – birthing goats on the family farm can be experience enough for someone working on an animal husbandry project.

But, then you have sectors where a background in economics is highlighted in the job description because the work is focused on the value chain or small business development, or something equally ambiguous yet remotely tied to economics.

That education requirement inevitably lends itself towards someone with a formal education in economics or a related field rather than a person who has experience in running their own business, but no formal education or even an education in another sector. The job description focuses on the theoretical level where quite possibly it should concentrate on the practical level. The technical expertise of experience may be better suited for the job, but the job requirements become exclusionary.

More a support function than implementation, communications as a sector would clearly benefit from employing those with backgrounds in other sectors, be they education or experienced-based. Why?

Well, for one, the person would actually know what they’re writing about, and hopefully be able to impart some of that understanding to the media, stakeholders, donors and even others within the same organization.

At the same time, everyone thinks they can write (yours truly included) but few are willing to take the time to do it. Hence, job descriptions for communications positions that highlight experience as a journalist or in public relations or something else that required the person to tap away at a keyboard day after day.

Added to this is the fact that to a greater extent a large portion of the degree and diploma programs in developing countries are effectively worthless for those that attend them. Many certifying bodies consider them to be nothing more than diploma mills and anyone who receives a qualification from there is unlikely to have it recognized by a foreign body.

This also means applying for aid and development jobs elsewhere is restricted to those with a formal education in Europe, Australia, North America. The push for localization from donors can also be a hindrance as often they still require the same educational qualifications without taking into account the country of operations – oftentimes nationals will have experience, vital experience, but not the formal education demanded.

I recognize that these are very general statements and I only mean for this discussion to take place in the widest possible context, so with that in mind – when does education trump experience?

What sectors have truly technical requirements to their work that, regardless of someone’s experience or the national operating procedures, the person doing the job needs to hold some sort of certification in that field?

Personally, I want anyone providing me with an injection to be thoroughly trained, though I recognize that they need not be a registered nurse or doctor – for more complicated tasks and in particular diagnosis or surgery then of course I want the “professional.”

To come out and say that a sector needs people with an education in a certain field is all well and good – if you can provide the evidence of how your duties can only be performed by someone who has that education and not someone with experience but no education.

The argument that “You will not understand because you don’t have a background (sic educational) in that sector” is one that is too often bandied about. It fails to recognize its own supporting logic to the person being questioned and denies those with no formal education but extensive experience their due.

As a journalist I have to ask not just “why?” but “why you?” If I didn’t I wouldn’t be doing my job. Education, particularly from established institutions, is often of a theoretical level, hence the need for accountants, engineers, architects, nurses, doctors and others to become certified beyond having received a diploma.

Aid and development is more often than not about doing practical work that has real world consequences and a lot of people doing said work have extensive experience but not necessarily the qualifications for it. That in itself is another discussion- should jobs be constrained to those with formal education?

So, where in any sector of aid and development is a formal qualification truly  necessary? What are the technical aspects of M&E, gender, communications, health, agriculture, disaster risk reduction, climate change, emergency aid, shelter, education, etc. that can only be done with a recognized qualification? Or does it just take a certain amount of experience to conduct the same work but have a different or no qualification at all?


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5 thoughts on “When does experience trump education?

  1. Very interesting, so first off thank you. I’m currently trying to decide the best route to take to get myself into the international development sector. I have a BS in Construction Management, and my goal is to work in rural communities in developing nations on water and sanitation issues. I guess I should also note that I’m American. I have been accepted into a very interdisciplinary community development program (by very interdisciplinary I mean I have 4 required courses and then can choose the rest of my courses from any program throughout the university). My plan, if I choose going back to school, is to take the required courses to get a background in community development and then take water related courses (water resource management, hydrology, water policy, ect) so that I can be knowledgeable when speaking to and informing people in the communities about water related issues.

    On the other hand, right now I dont have any international experience (besides some traveling) which makes me very nervous. I would most likely be able to do a summer internship overseas if I decided to go back to school, however, I doubt 3 months would be enough experience? The other option I’m considering is doing Peace Corps (or something similar) to get myself a significant amount of experience. The one problem I have with Peace Corps is that you dont have control over what you end up doing, and therefore I’m not sure how helpful it would be for me to do Peace Corps if I’m not working on a water or sanitation related project. Would the experience alone, even if not specifically related to what I want to end up doing, be a better route?

    I’ve heard different things from different people which has made this a very difficult decision for me. I would hate to spend 2 years earning a degree only to find that I cant get hired because I lack experience, and on the opposite side of that coin, I would hate to go volunteer somewhere for 2 years only to be told that I need a Masters degree to get hired. Maybe something that is important to note is that I’m a very hands on person and would like to work in the field, in communities, with the people, hand-in-hand on coming up with and implementing solutions. I’m not really concerned with making a lot of money (maybe this will change in the future), and I’m really just concerned with helping people. I know there’s no “right” answer to my questions, but any thoughts you could offer would be very much appreciated. Thank you!

  2. […] In an older piece focusing on careers in international development, a journalist argues that while in many instances, credentials and formal education are key, we aren’t doing a good job of figuring out when a college degree is important and when it is not: […]

  3. It’s a great conversation and I think back in the day experience did trump education however now with the sector being so competitive if you do not have a masters on your C.V. then you will quickly get tossed aside by the HR scrutineers. That being said without field experience you will not get a paid job, it’s just too much of a risk for NGOs to invest in people who have not really been out there doing the work. So it’s really a combination of both experience in the field and an education. I would recommend that people try to pre-think what sector they want to go in and avoid the generalist pit hole that many fall into. Also I would get at least 6 months of experience working with an NGO in Africa or Asia. I work at Workforce Humanity and we have aid and development workers available to answer questions for entry level candidates so that they can make an informed step in the right direction Cheers Michelle

  4. courtney

    As a field based relief worker who has been tossing back and forth the idea of another degree but keeps taking “just one more contract”, I appreciated this. When it comes to local staff, the lines between experience and education are always more blurry, which I think is a good thing. In the past generation or so, as international aid work has become increasingly “professionalized” this question comes to mind more often. Thanks for your thoughts on this, it was a good read.

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