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How does experience stack up against education, and how do we address ageism? | Richard Branson


Richard Branson

Thank you, as ever, to everyone who shared such great questions for my Ask Richard Newsletter this month. I chose this question from Karen Morgan, as I have a lot of thoughts on the matter. I also paraphrased her question a little bit to fit into a headline, but I wanted to share it in full:


How do you feel about hiring someone without a degree, but with 20+ years of experience? Do you think that someone straight out of school with a degree is more suited to a position than someone with years of experience and a desire to continue learning and growing? I have encountered ‘ageism’ more than ever recently, but in my mind I’m still in my thirties and I know several others who are experiencing similar things!


I feel very strongly about hiring based on character, life experiences, unique skills, passion, and values. This likely stems back to my own experience with education – where I left school at 15 and learnt everything I knew from real-world experience. It required a whole lot of learning on the job, teamwork, mentorship, learning from mistakes, and trusting my instinct – but I wouldn’t have done it any other way. It’s also why I stress the need to teach kids skills for life.


In saying that, I also admire anyone who follows a higher education and excels academically. It requires a great deal of focus, determination, and mental strength, and it develop wonderful skills in research, writing, analysing, articulating, expanding ideas, and so on. There are also certain careers where a higher education is necessary – such as medicine and engineering. In most cases though, it’s important to acknowledge academic endeavours, but not require them. When you’re hiring, you should really avoid requiring minimum education levels and even minimum years of experience. Instead, you should focus on a skill and character based process. Recruitment should emphasise character traits, values, life experience, transferable skills, and values that make a person unique and a good fit for your company. Virgin Management’s Inclusive Recruitment Guidelines sums it up well in saying:


For most people, it’s the experience gained once we leave formal education that matters most. And being less specific about university degrees or qualifications encourages a broader candidate pool.

The same absolutely applies for age (and many other areas) too! With age comes wisdom, confidence, perception and experience, and businesses need to remember this. I turned 70 a few years ago and I feel more energetic and engaged than ever. There’s an unconscious bias about age that needs to be addressed. Removing the age box (and reference to specific years) in an application form is a good way to start.


Karen – I really hope this was the encouragement you needed, and it sounds like any business would be lucky to have you. Here’s hoping ageism and exclusive recruitment processes soon become a thing of the past.


Richard Branson 

Founder at Virgin Group


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