Degree of difficulty Featured

7:00pm EDT February 23, 2009

There has never been a better time to go to school. More and more jobs require a college education, and the competition for quality jobs has intensified as businesses downsize and the labor pool expands.

Louis J. Licata has seen the shift from both sides as both the founder and president of the Licata & Toerek law firm and as an adjunct faculty member at University of Phoenix’s Cleveland Campus, which includes locations in Beachwood, Independence and Westlake.

Even when money is tight, higher education is a sound investment — whether it’s a degree earned by you, your employees or your potential employees.

“You have to bring your game up a level to stay competitive in today’s marketplace,” Licata says. “The only way to do that is through the educational process. If you don’t, you run the risk of being replaced by someone who’s better qualified for your job.”

Smart Business spoke with Licata about how hiring employees with advanced education can upgrade your business.

What factors are placing a premium on increased education?

This isn’t a recent phenomenon. The economic conditions have escalated it, but within the last five or 10 years, businesses and corporations of all sizes and levels have been looking for people to broaden their skill bases and do more with less. Now that the market has become flooded with more people who are looking for employment, anybody who has dreams of moving up the ladder has to enhance their marketability. One of those ways is to go back to school. If you don’t have a degree, get your degree. If you have a degree, go for your MBA or your master’s. As employers start to look for people to fill those jobs, one of the easy differentiators is education.

What are the practical advantages of getting a college degree?

Businesses have gotten into cross training, so they have more depth in their current staff to be able to handle more responsibilities in different areas. The advanced degree or additional education gives people an opportunity to be eligible for cross training. That way, they aren’t in a silo. They aren’t just limited to a particular skill. They are also more attractive to a business because they can help the business in a number of different ways. They’ve also revealed through their education — especially if they decide to go back to school to get an advanced degree — a certain level of commitment to their growth and development. Those are the kinds of people that businesses are looking for.

How can business owners use the competitive job market to their advantage?

You always hear about opportunities in a bad economy. One of the opportunities for businesses is to upgrade their talent pools. This is a golden opportunity for business owners to go out and get a quality, talented individual that might have not otherwise been available before.

If you put an ad in the paper for a marketing coordinator, the easy differentiator is who has a marketing degree at the MBA level versus a marketing degree at the undergraduate level. The unfortunate byproduct of that is there might be others with undergraduate degrees that might be truly better for the job, but you would never know that because you’re focusing on the MBA candidates.

It’s the same for promotions. Say you’ve worked somewhere for 15 years. You know as much about the organization, the structure, the people, the dynamics and the politics as anyone. You’d probably be the best person for that management position. But you’re not even going to get considered without the MBA.

Will a company make an exception? Maybe. But why put a company in a position to have to make an exception? Make it easy for the employer to move you up the ladder or to bring you in by going out and getting an associate’s, bachelor’s or advanced degree. That shows that you have more to offer than the person next to you.

How can hiring employees with college educations benefit a company?

It’s literally an opportunity to trade up. Say you’ve got an employee who’s been mediocre for the last two or three years. That isn’t working anymore. The economy is down; you’ve got to do more with less. That means your people have to step it up. You can’t afford to lose business because you have a mediocre employee. So you need to look for a replacement. With the economy, there are more people in the market, with more experience and education — it’s an upgrade.

It’s insidious, you don’t see it very often, but companies will lay off 20 people, and within months, hire 10 to do the same jobs. If you compare the people they’ve laid off with the people they’ve hired, you’ll see that they’ve clearly upgraded their talent pool. They’ve hired people with more experience or education to do the same job.

LOUIS J. LICATA is the founder and president of the Licata & Toerek law firm and an adjunct faculty member at University of Phoenix’s Cleveland Campus, which includes locations in Beachwood, Independence and Westlake. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, the Professional Fellowship Program at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management and Cleveland State University. University of Phoenix, the largest private university in North America, serves a diverse student population, offering associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree programs from campuses and learning centers across the U.S. as well as online throughout the world. University of Phoenix Cleveland Campus serves students online and at locations in Independence, Beachwood and Westlake/Crocker Park. To learn more, contact University of Phoenix at (216) 447-8807 or (800) MY SUCCESS or www.phoenix.edu.