Last week we presented Part I of our article, Thoughts on the “To Degree or Not Degree” podcast. It concludes below with a series of Q&As related to healthcare facilities management leadership and college degrees.

Q1: What are critical factors for FM success?

If you assume technical competency, and at the Director level, technical competency is required, soft skills, the degree to which a Director can effectively utilize them, are crucial to success.

The ability to listen, communicate, speak, write, question, lead, respond with emotional intelligence, use silence, delegate, mentor, motivate, and inspire, to name a few, is essential. In addition, effective directors think on their feet and have controlled egos that allow for success without arrogance. 

Influential directors are comfortable saying I don’t know, tell me more. They are visible and accessible, leading Incident Command during a winter boiler crisis while exuding credibility, not fostering incredulity. 

I ask leaders who work in facilities management what they think the appropriate mix of technical skills versus soft skills should be for success. Many facility leaders say the combination should be at least 50/50, with many saying you need a 60% soft skill, 40% technical skill mix. Think about that change from 10 years ago. It is significant.

Soft skills are not the sole domain of degreed professionals. These competencies are present in professionals leading departments today, non-degreed and degreed.  

Q2: Why a degree requirement?

Well, reasons vary.

Part of it, I am convinced, is societal pressure and conformance to receive a degree. The Bruce Hornsby effect, if you will – That’s Just the Way It Is. Not a good reason.

A more valid reason is the need to understand and utilize financial concepts.

Facilities are one of, if not the most significant, hospital cost centers. Numbers and finance can be intimidating. Directors must manage budget, cut costs, create business cases and financial plans, determine ROIs, and create equipment replacement plans infused with financial insight and understanding. They must take their knowledge and present it to senior leaders clearly and concisely, advocating for department needs.

Indeed, a degree may assist in acquiring and honing these skills, which is not debatable. But like soft skills, financial acumen is not the sole domain of the degreed. For example, directors who are former business owners or project managers who did not go to college can possess these skills. They would have used some of them in their former roles.

I was recently corresponding with a Director who does not have a college degree. He rose through the trades into facility leadership. He listened to the High Reliability Education podcast and wrote me. I asked if I could use his comment in this piece. He said yes.

That is the organization’s loss. Years of journeyman-level field experience cannot be taught in a classroom or from books. What they don’t understand is that to become skilled in many trades takes more years than someone who got a degree. It’s a better way to get the respect of your staff, vendors, and leadership when they discover you are competent beyond most of the staff, and can teach them.

I keep talking to VP’s and CEOs that hired someone that was educated and they can’t manage the CMMS because they don’t know what a chiller does, or how a fan wall on an AHU works. They crashed and burned and had to look for another Director within a few months of bringing in an educated person. Our field is more about relationships and common sense than having a degree.

On a recent High Reliability episode, I spoke with Jonathan Hunley, System Director of Facilities Infrastructure at Bon Secours Mercy Health, about the degree issue. He offered:

“College is not everything. It is a piece of paper that says you accomplished something, but did you absolutely need it to succeed in life? No. And this is coming from a person who has two pieces of paper. Most of what I have learned in my job I learned post-graduation.”

Jonathan touches on, indirectly, another reason noted for degree necessity. That is, without a degree, without that piece of paper, when you are sitting at the meeting table with your Director-level peers, your gravitas, your reputation, is less than theirs. So essentially, a degree buys you a seat at the table.

I have witnessed that prevailing attitude in some organizations; it is accurate. But if an organization looks at the acquisition of paper over individual performance, what kind of an organization is it? I have worked in the field with facility professionals who don’t have degrees who I would trust in all facility situations. So a degree isn’t even a consideration during those moments.

An additional, more concrete rationale for the degree is the ability to utilize soft skills, the skills we mentioned above. Of course, you can cultivate those skills in college, but do 4 years of schooling create soft skill expertise?

We have all worked with degreed individuals who struggle to find the correct word to use in a meeting, read their audience appropriately, and collaborate with their team on project work. And we have all worked with non-degreed professionals who struggle with the same.

Soft skill expertise is gained from experience, both in years and situations; with self-awareness and acceptance of individual strengths and weaknesses; and working with people from all backgrounds and departments — clinicians, doctors, risk managers, accounts payable, compliance, materials management.

Soft skill expertise grows over time. Who could honestly claim to have better soft skills at 25 years old than they had at 35, 45, or 55?

Q3: When is a degree required?

It is true that in some hospital departments, degrees are needed for leadership positions. Healthcare facilities are not one of those departments. There should be allowances to hire non-degreed professionals.

However, in the specific areas/situations described below, a degree is close to a 100% requirement:

* Academic Medical Center
* Vice President of Facility Management (where increasingly, a Master’s is needed)
* Directing a facility over 2 million square feet of space, give or take

Q4: What are your degree thoughts?

In the end, we are consultants and do as our client requests. If a degree is required, we recruit candidates with degrees. We don’t argue with our clients.

And perhaps my life is empty if I ponder this question, but I am left with many questions relative to the degree. Some of the questions don’t have answers, and some probably aren’t relevant, but I think about them.  

1) Has the role become too big for a single individual? Are the demands of real estate, construction, operations, compliance, risk, finance, and personnel management too much, especially when considered against a backdrop of doing more with less? 

2) If the phrase old dogs can learn new tricks is accurate, why not educate/augment those skills that can be learned and lacking, such as finance? If soft skills, technical skills, and a passion for healthcare are present in an individual, isn’t that a smarter approach?

3) Do organizations have the luxury of looking at just degreed people, given Baby Boomer retirements and the market?  From a risk management perspective, which leaders assess daily, isn’t it a more considerable risk to hire a degreed person without healthcare facility leadership experience in favor of a person who has successful healthcare experience but no degree?

4) If you need an electrician for your home, would you hire a plumber with 5 years of experience and a college degree over an electrician with 20 years of commercial experience and no college degree?

5) As we look to and plan for future leadership needs, is it fair to complain about the lack of tradespeople, but then turn around and say you need a degree to advance your career into leadership?

If today’s young person sees a trades shortage, which there is, and decides to learn a trade and start to make money, a good living, is it appropriate to hold that decision against them in the future? Isn’t the decision to learn a trade and avoid debt due to college tuition a mature one? During my early 20s, I wasn’t thinking down the road, unless down the road was the following weekend.  

6) Where does, or does, the increasing cost of tuition enter into the calculation? As organizations cut back on Continuing Education funding and tuitions rise exponentially, is it fair to ask individuals to take on debt, especially if they have a family they are supporting?

7) Lastly, and I am not sure that the following quote is analogous, but when we discuss the need for a degree, my mind often drifts to the Einstein quote, “Never memorize something that you can look up.”

For me, on some level, Einstein’s quote relates to the degree question.

In sum, my thoughts and perspectives are not anti-education. My 4 years at Marquette University were some of the best of my life, and the friendships I made remain. College expanded my view.

My thoughts are anti-summarily dismissing years of leadership experience because a leader does not have a degree. 

I favor the continued consideration for non-degreed candidates who have demonstrated hospital facility’s leadership success. 

Pragmatically, I do not think you can dismiss a double-digit percentage of experienced people who lack a degree from leadership consideration.

Listen to the High Reliability education podcast with Steve, Jason, and Cory

“To Degree or not to Degree” is available for your listening pleasure. Three guests joined to discuss the topic:

  • Steve Spaanbroek, CEO and Owner of MSL Healthcare Partners, Inc., a firm the assists healthcare organizations improve their physical environments and improve patient outcomes.
  • Jason Tate, Director of Plant Operations at MountainView Regional Medical Center in Las Cruces, NM.
  • Cory Majszak, Director of Facility Operations at St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee, WI. St. Luke’s is part of Advocate Aurora Health, a system based in Illinois and Wisconsin.

Listen to the podcast (link below, number 4) and send your thoughts to

G/MA Nuggets

1) Link to part 1 of “To Degree or not to Degree”

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3) Watch the News in 5 for July…it’s our unbiased look at the month in FM, in less than 5 minutes!

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