Degree vs Determination – what do you need to enter the workforce today?
Posted on 2019 Aug,20  | By Arjun Rk & Ghada Azzi

Napoleon Hill, a well renowned self-help author of the book, ‘Think & Grow Rich’, stated that the missing link in all systems of education known to civilization may be found in the failure of educational institutions to teach students how to organize and use the knowledge after they’ve acquired it. It’s interesting to note this book was written in the year 1937. But the facts mentioned remain relevant to this day.


As a mater of fact, we often hear employers and business leaders lament the unfortunate gap between what students learn in college and what they are actually expected to know in order to be job-ready. This is particularly alarming in light of The ‘Middle East Workplace Dynamics’ poll conducted five years ago, which revealed that a fifth of professionals in the Middle East and North Africa do not believe that their education adequately prepare them for success in the workplace. This is seen as a major impediment to career growth, as education and professional training are necessary to thrive in an increasingly competitive global arena.

Although there is a clear premium on education —as Nanshi Maradia, Success Manager at Oliv Dubai suggests, "we always look for the education background, as this is considered to be the foundation or the stepping stone of any career"--there are several arguments that question the actual, rather than the perceived, value of a college degree.

"The way we approach education will need to change to keep up with the pace of advancements in technology and best practices across multiple industries, stated Matt Jones, Senior Consultant at Michael Page Digital Dubai. “Until that time comes though, a solid university degree is still the benchmark by which new entrants to the professional world are judged against. It’s a tough transitional time for graduates to be navigating as they’re often expected to have what can be argued is an unrealistic combination of stellar education and up to the minute, cross-functional professional skill sets.”

Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that self-education and real world experience is more valuable in today’s modern workplace, but the expectations of HR departments and line managers will need to change for that to become readily accepted. At the same time, as university qualifications become more commonplace, recruiters and employers will increasingly demand them, regardless of whether they are actually required for a specific job.

In fact, the lack of education preparation remains the biggest roadblock for career growth said Suhail Masri, VP of Sales, “Professionals should start seriously looking at other methods of gaining knowledge to stay relevant, whether through further education, online resources, or training and workshops. In fact, our poll shows that professionals are searching for opportunities where they can learn and grow, so training programs in companies can help attract top-quality candidates. At, our mission is to empower people with the tools and information they need to lead their lifestyle of choice, so we are constantly creating innovative new solutions to make it easier for professionals from all industries and experiences to succeed in their careers.”

"The way we approach education will need to change to keep up with the pace of advancements in technology and best practices across multiple industries.”--Matt Jones, Senior Consultant at Michael Page Digital, Dubai.

When employers attach value to university qualifications, it’s often because they see them as a reliable indicator of a candidate’s intellectual competence. However, today's market demands have clearly called for a paradigm change. More and more students are spending more and more money on higher education, and their main goal is largely pragmatic: to boost their employability and be a valuable contributor to the economy. Even if the value attached to a university degree is beneficial to those who obtain it, companies seem to have changed the narrative by putting less weight on “higher education” and instead, approach hiring with more open-mindedness. Indeed, the new generation of people in our industry are required to be much more multi-faceted and be able to blend strategic, creative and reductive communication skills with an understanding of technology and technical channels which were not required before.

In an age of ubiquitous disruption and unpredictable job evolution, it is hard to argue that the knowledge acquisition historically associated with a university degree is still relevant. And yes, says Maradia "The education system is not perfect, as nothing in this world is perfect, but it gives candidates a solid foundation and theoretical knowledge that they can apply to their work. Career begins with the choice of degree/ courses and not just with the first job. We are pro-universities for sure."

"It’s no secret that the current job market is challenging in many sectors. It’s also true that many companies favour relevant industry experience over fresh graduates. However, there are more and more opportunities opening up to graduates with in demand skills in the technology, digital and new media industries. There are also many graduate/intern schemes available at the regional offices of global brands. As long as graduates keep an open mind and favour the experience and opportunity to learn ahead of the ‘dream first job’, opportunities are there," argued Jones.

“For any job, the hands on experience and day to day hunger to learn and be more involved is what will drive your career evolution."—Mona Abou Alhasan, senior digital manager

A 2019 study into career opportunities for fresh graduates found in terms of skills required to excel in the workplace, respondents mentioned both computer and communication skills (49 per cent) as the most important, followed by academic and technical skills (37 per cent), interpersonal/team skills (34 per cent) and Flexibility/adaptability to change (30 per cent).

Kerry McLaren, of YouGov MENA, said: "The 2019 survey shows that more and more employers are opening their doors to fresh graduates, presenting a significant shift in what employers need in this increasingly digital world. Our research reflects the preference of employers in hiring candidates who have already developed interpersonal and technological proficiencies, despite being new to the workforce."

When asked what specific qualities/skills do you look for in graduates during the recruiting process, Maradia said: "As we understand that fresh graduates lack the experience, we focus more on the soft skills such as communication, awareness, problem solving, adaptability, leadership, teamwork, time management and motivation etc."

Yet, it has been long-established that the correlation between education level and job performance is weak. For Mona Al Hasan, senior digital manager, the way she sees the university degree is "it is essentially a prerequisite to develop our foundation and prepare us for the next stages both in terms of personal development and business understanding. But for any job, the hands on experience and day to day hunger to learn and be more involved is what will drive your career evolution." However, to be better prepared to enter the workforce, she would recommend "seeking internships whenever you have room to do so, it’s a great introduction into the working environment giving you exposure to important skills like analytical thinking, presentation skills, leadership, teamwork, problem solving or agility. "

Jones too leans towards the practical & hand’s on approach rather than theory as she feels it’s more beneficial in the development of an individual’s career.

"Get technical. Understand that creativity is not enough in the data driven age we now live in.

"The education system is not perfect […], but it gives candidates a solid foundation and theoretical knowledge that they can apply to their work.”—Nenshi Maradia, Success Manager at Oliv Dubai

It’s cliché but it’s true. The guys who are fast tracked through creative and marketing departments are those that back their ideas up with analysis and business intelligence. If it doesn’t come naturally at least get comfortable working closely with these teams, try to speak their language, bridge the gap between design and decisions," recommends Jones.

Having said that, universities could substantially increase the value of the college degree if they spent more time teaching their students critical soft skills. Recruiters and employers are unlikely to be impressed by candidates unless they can demonstrate a certain degree of people-skills. This is perhaps one of the biggest differences between what universities and employers look for in applicants. While employers want candidates with higher levels of EQ, resilience, empathy, and integrity, those are rarely attributes that universities nurture or select for in admissions.

As the impact of AI and disruptive technology grows, candidates who can perform tasks that machines cannot are becoming more valuable — and that underscores the growing importance of soft skills, which are hard for machines to emulate.