Can experience make up for the lack of a degree, or does a degree provide something that experience cannot? Is one more valuable than the other? Talk about a discussion that will have you chasing your tail! It's truly a trap debate because the right answer is "it depends".
Whether it's a completely strategic discussion about your organization's policies or a discussion involving a specific position and candidate, this issue continually resurfaces at organizations. And depending on what side of the fence you sit, this issue can be very personal and emotional. Do a quick Internet search, and you'll find a common theme. Your search results will be dominated by links to chat/message boards where someone who has many years of applicable work experience but no degree poses a question about how to further his or her career without getting a degree. Of course, the question is followed by endless responses debating the issue.
Obviously, there are specific cases where the question is moot. If you need a registered professional engineer to approve plans, the degree requirement is a given. If you're a hospital looking for a surgeon, you're probably seeking someone with a PhD in medicine. However, the scope of positions that may or may not require a degree gets gray pretty fast, and the span is pretty wide. And, no industry is immune to this issue.
I've helped draft more job descriptions than I care to admit, and each time I ask the question of whether or not a degree is required, the response is usually based on cultural or personal preferences. Ironically, the hiring manager often justifies the decision to require a degree on "experience".
Regardless of your personal preference, I believe that as an employer, you should ponder some basic concepts to help you make a sound decision.
First, let's examine why employers prefer college degrees. Most often, they associate the following characteristics with people who have degrees (and more specifically, four-year degrees):
A proven ability to analyze problems, conduct research and produce solutions
A proven ability to learn complex, difficult subject matter
Proof they are motivated and have drive
Proof of intelligence
Better interpersonal skills
More credible qualifications
While it's difficult to argue that these characteristics are consistent with people who have earned a four-year degree, it's easy to question whether or not these characteristics are exclusive to that group. This is the root of my frustration with employers as they define job requirements. There is nothing wrong with requiring a four-year degree if that's what the job requires. But, if that requirement is based on a "that's how it's always been" mentality, or a personal bias, you are probably missing out on a large pool of job candidates.
The field of reliability - especially reliability engineering - is even more susceptible to this pitfall. The fact is that there is no accredited engineering program that produces a "reliability engineer". You can get a degree in many different engineering areas. However, you can't get one in reliability engineering, at least not yet. Many of the job descriptions I see for "reliability engineering" don't justify the degree. The requirement is usually there because the position is within the engineering department or because of a preconceived notion that only someone within an engineering degree can perform these duties. Much of the time, I believe the position could be renamed "reliability coordinator" or "reliability specialist" and be filled by someone with applicable experience and associated competencies.
So, take the time to properly identify and develop the required behaviors, abilities, knowledge and skills of the position. Ask yourself whether or not these required competencies can only be obtained through the process of earning a degree or if they can be acquired through experiences before completing the job description. At minimum, you'll learn more about the job requirements and better understand how you see this position fitting within your organization.
I earned a degree in mechanical engineering and take pride in my education. My four years at Oklahoma State provided me an opportunity to obtain abilities and knowledge that helped shape my career. My studies prepared me to be a pipeline engineer straight out of college. But, if I had to decide between taking my hydraulic fluids class or my summer internship learning about pumps, turbines, motors and pipeline hydraulics from my supervisor (who I later found out was not a degreed engineer), it wouldn't be close. That internship experience was priceless.