What do you want this new year – new decade – to mean for you? Is now the time to show your boss that you are ready for more? Or to finally leave the job you’ve been growing dissatisfied with for longer than you had realised? Or will you make the break from your past altogether and start an entirely new career? Whatever your envisaged direction, one of the questions you are likely to consider is whether you should return to study.

The university degree has long held an important place in our careers. Although the number of jobs that officially require a degree is actually very low, the present reality (or perceived reality) is a degree is essential for most people in most careers.

Universities have done their best to position themselves as the career insurance policy, creating fields of study and curricula to assure workers and employers alike that no matter the job, to borrow from the Apple slogan, there’s a degree for that.

Such has been the effectiveness of universities’ claims that careers are made through degrees that they continue to see millions of people trawl through their course programs searching for that qualification, one that will lead not just to a job but to career that will result in a life fulfilled.

But in a world where futurists tell us many jobs to come don’t even exist today, is a three or four year degree still relevant or useful? Assuming the issues of time and money aren’t a factor, should you be pinning your ambition for your career on the formal university credential?

When there are more people looking for jobs than there are jobs available, a degree may be just the advantage you need to edge out a less qualified competitor. Looking at the current job market, that would appear to be the case as tertiary qualified workers fill the ranks of low and semi-skilled casual and/or gig economy work; not by choice but by necessity.

Only, it’s not the case. For every excess job applicant, there is a job sitting unfilled. According to workforce solution company, ManpowerGroup, 34% of employers in Australia have open jobs they can’t fill. Management firm Korn Ferry puts the shortage of workers for available jobs at 739,000. The work not getting done is costing over $A228.31 billion in revenue. Europe has a similar problem with the European Commission predicting that the 756,000 jobs without workers is only set to increase. A similar figure affects the US with the SHRM reporting there are 6.3 million job seekers for 7 million vacant jobs. The story is the same the world over: in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America.

That’s cold comfort to anyone in possession of a degree but not enough income to live on. It doesn’t make sense that there are jobs sitting vacant and employers are desperate to fill them, while the unemployed struggle and the numbers of qualified underemployed grow.

We have more university graduates today than at any other time in history. Workplaces are replete with talent management professionals and diversity and inclusion specialists charged with helping more people overcome barriers to jobs. With all these in place, then any university graduate who is able and willing today should have a job to match their qualification. The thing is, it’s not a labour shortage (not enough people to work), but a skills shortage.

When the price of labour goes up and availability of skills goes down, employers have greater incentive to invest in technology – and today there is more technology than ever and fewer functions that it cannot perform. The more employers invest, the more it changes the skills they need. The more the skills change, the greater the skills gap. The greater the skills gap, the more unfilled jobs on one hand, and on the other, people with skills from the old environment struggling to find jobs. It means even those in jobs could find their skills losing relevance with little or no warning.

Such is the issue of technological advances accelerating faster than workforce upgrades, that the World Economic Forum estimates 54% of ALL workers will need to be reskilled or upskilled by 2022.

When the world changed from mostly agricultural industry, education changed with it. Over the course of the First and Second Industrial Revolutions, higher education moved from being the preserve of the privileged and professional classes to meet employer needs for technical and managerial skills. From the Second to Third Industrial Revolutions, higher education responded to growing business complexity with new fields of study covering professions that were once trade and vocational skills.

In the past we knew what jobs looked like so it was expeditious to run three and four year courses, allowing students to get the learning out of the way, then rely on employer training to take care of the rest of their lives. In what is now universally recognised as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the world is changing more and faster than all the changes that took place in the previous revolutions.

Today, the lifespan of skills is not just short; the types of technology will demand skills be applied in greatly altered or unforeseen ways. Jobs won’t be fixed sets of recognisable skills, but will fragment and into myriads of reconfigured ways – not dissimilar to the way we can all buy the same smartphones then customise them to our own particulars. That is already happening. Just take a look at the Linkedin profiles of skilled professionals and see how many are their owners’ unique combination of skills, abilities and attributes.

So what does one do? Study for a degree or not?

When we can’t foresee the way work and jobs will evolve, we can’t depend on a course that was written years ago and taught in isolation from the environments in which the learning will be applied. Education and degrees are still important – they probably matter more than ever but not as the job credentials that they have been. (How exactly the system should overhaul is another topic.)

The state of change, a world connected by mobile devices and the ability of smart technology to deliver personalised, customised and responsive solutions have created an environment of endless possibilities. Employers need people with the ability – the digital capabilities – for working productively in this environment. This limits the value of generic learning as a path towards a job. Learning without a specific context in which skill has been tested, is almost the same as not learning at all.

The new normal is not learning upfront then waiting for some employer to validate your qualification with a job. The same applies for those already working. When industries are in a state of flux, a past job title can’t be relied on as your credential for your next job.

The recognition that was once reserved for the qualification is being replaced by the track record. To illustrate, it’s the difference between someone with a digital marketing degree and one with 100,000 online followers. Both are worthy achievements, but one has been applied and tested.

When things are always changing, you need to do to learn, not just learn to do. The more you apply skills in a context, the more you are credentialling yourself. Imagine the different learning experience of someone who integrates the experience of building up the authority on a topic 100,000 people found compelling enough to follow, with study. That would change the learning experience and outcome entirely.

It isn’t a question of obtaining a(nother) degree, or not. Any learning is valuable if it enlightens, challenges, interests and engages. But if you are studying as a means to land yourself a job, you might need to re-consider whether a degree alone is enough in the context of a world of continuous change to satisfy an employer.

How will you know? You could wait to see if you are successful in your job search after your studies are completed. Or you could put yourself to the test today and do something to credential yourself. Just try doing something. It doesn’t matter what because it’s all learning and experience, as long as you are doing something to produce something. That’s what your future employers want to see, that you can manage your own learning and build experience. And it won’t leave you with a hefty student debt.

Interested in learning more about the shifting nature of education? The Michelangelo Project explains how to position yourself for success in an increasingly digitised world.



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