Do we all really need university degrees?

This is surprisingly a very emotive question.  When I first heard this question, I was outraged.  Throughout my childhood in rural Louisiana, I was told, “you can do anything if you get an education”.  So for me, education was the door through which all opportunity lay.  And suggesting that not everyone needed a university degree was like shutting that door for many people. 

So, when I finally got my shiny new Math degree from MIT and went to work on the trading floor at JPMorgan as a derivative trader, I was surprised to discover that many of the other traders in the market didn’t have university degrees.  By trader I am including the interbank brokers, the floor traders on the exchanges and the market makers at banks.  So it was a bit of a joke that suddenly to get a trading job you needed a math degree from MIT.   

I very quickly realized why it was a joke.  The traders without degrees were some of the sharpest and most commercial people on the street.  They knew how to make money and they intuitively understood the market dynamics and could read market moves better than anyone. 

Of course, many of these traders traded “simple” cash products like equities or FX or bonds.  I was trading derivatives where surely a degree was needed?  The short answer is no.  I was handed a calculator and a spreadsheet and told to buy low and sell high.  My math degree felt almost useless.  To be fair, it came in handy as I started trading more complex products and I needed to communicate with the quants who were building the models.  But I never had to build the models.  I really just had to buy low and sell high and read the market. 

The people I learned that from, were the “Brooklyn boys” in New York or “Barrow boys” in London.  They were the most colourful, entertaining, loud and obnoxious people in finance.  They were also, from my perspective, the smartest. 

So when we ask the question “Do we all really need university degrees?” with hindsight, it’s not about closing doors and limiting opportunity, but opening the door and being open minded in corporate recruitment.  Recognizing that not everything we need comes from university graduates.

Terri Duhonfinance