Traditionally senior management roles carried with them a pre-requisite of a university degree, usually a MBA and preferably from one of the top universities such as Oxford or Cambridge. In recent years, however, some companies are claiming that experience and skill is more important and candidates applying for senior positions need not necessarily have a university degree. This is good news, but is it true for construction and in particular the transport and infrastructure industry?

Who are the C–suite executives?

Recent trends indicate that many senior roles are now being occupied with people with a financial rather than engineering background. This is not surprising given the pressure to increase profit margins. While less than 20% of senior management hold MBA’s almost all of them hold a university degree. Those that have risen to the top without a degree are, for now, still the exception to the norm.

However, with diversity becoming increasingly important, companies are recognising that there are many skilled managers who have the knowledge and experience to move up, regardless of the fact that they do not hold university degrees. Due to the cost of tertiary education, many people from minority groups did not have the opportunity to go to university before starting their careers. 10 or 20 years down the line, this certainly shouldn’t be something to hold them back if they are truly skilled in their field.

Knowledge versus skill

While knowledge is invaluable, more critical is the ability to apply that knowledge in the workplace. Studies show that learning that happens on the job, through practice and repetition is far more likely to be retained than theoretical study. How many people, 15 years after they graduated will be able to recall the specifics of any particular university course unless it’s something they apply in their daily work? Not many.

The transport and infrastructure industry is one that is tipped for positive growth with many projects being announced in the short and medium term. It will need strong and skilled leadership in order to make the most of these opportunities. Companies should not overlook candidates who don’t hold a university degree, because they will need leaders who can think outside the box, who can create agile and profitable organisations and who aren’t constrained by traditional thinking.

While knowledge is valuable, a university degree is no guarantee that the person has the right skills needed. But managers who can deliver in these challenging economic times, they will be sought after.