With the rise of university placements comes the rise of qualifications, and it soon started to seem like the only way to get your foot in the door was by having a string of letters after your name.
But this wasn’t always the case, and with the rising cost of education making some think twice about pursuing higher learning, plus grumblings from some quarters that university graduates aren’t prepared for the workplace is it time that work experience becomes the preferred attribute for employers, or do qualifications still highlight the best candidate?
We spoke with two experts to discover the advantages of each. But don’t be shy, we want to hear your opinions too. Is experience the only way to measure a candidate or should qualifications be a fast-track to career progression?
Qualifications are more important
Andrew Main is an associate dean at Bournemouth University. He thinks qualifications reveal much more about a person than just their academic prowess.
“Firstly, I would like to say that a degree is not just about getting a job/career. The benefits affect all parts of life; intellectual, social, sporting, personal, artistic, ethical, and so much more.
Recruiters often write job advertisements that specify that a degree is needed for the job, thus the market decides on this point, and it values degrees. Additionally, there are more jobs today than there were 50 years ago that involve working with your brain and fewer jobs involving manual skills.
A degree is a start in working life, after all. Then experience, to give it its due place, will increasingly provide opportunities for further development of the person.
Let us compare like with like, say a 21-year-old graduate compared with a 21-year-old with industry experience, both of equal intelligence. Let me give due credit to experience: it does not switch intelligence off (the way a few academics talk, one might think that they suppose the opposite).
However, education changes you. Given the same elapsed time, a course of education will bring a greater depth of understanding than experience can provide.
Thus experience may teach you that ‘doing it that way does not work’, but education gives you the theoretical knowledge and analytical skill to show why it does not work. Education develops your speed of learning and ability to learn at depth.
Thus the experienced learn new ideas processes or technologies, but the educated learn them faster and more deeply.
The graduates who are best at delivering high graduate value come from ‘sandwich’ courses with a year in industry. They have a great combination of theory and rigour, with a strong understanding of application of knowledge.
The courses I work on educate students for two years, place them in industry for a year and bring them back to complete a final year of education. They are outstanding. They gain jobs very easily and prove themselves quickly. The majority have very enviable careers”.
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Work experience is more important
Matt Hackett, manager of digital & marketing recruitment team at Orchard, sees the value of experience in the workplace.
“Nowadays everyone seems to have a or wants to have a degree, and there is still a tendency to jump straight into starting one as soon as possible. But is it the right way to go?
Is a 21-year-old with 3 years solid experience who has completed some relevant industry qualifications during this time a more, or less, valuable resource that a newly qualified university graduate who has barely stepped foot in an office environment before?
Putting yourself in that position, do you think you would be stronger placed having spent 3 years starting a career and having earned at least £30,000 during that time, or having learnt about a subject with limited practical experience and potentially built up large debts? If it’s the former, do employers need to re-evaluate who they are taking on in their entry level positions?
A degree qualification used to be a major deciding factor in who got the job, but I think as more and more people have gained degrees, especially over recent years, employers have become less impressed on the whole, and focused more on experience.
If you asked most employers if they would select a raw graduate with 3 years in education but no tangible experience, or a college leaver with 3 years relevant experience, I would expect the vast majority would favour the latter.
Most job specs I receive stating reference to any required educational and qualifications are usually mentioned at being ‘ideal’ or ‘beneficial’ rather than essential.
When reviewing CVs, both personally and alongside employers, experience is reviewed before education in most cases, apart from entry/junior level positions.
A 3-year study-only degree doesn’t really work, so apprenticeships are starting to become much more commonplace within this sector, along with other workplace learnings.
Obviously this differs in some vocations where a certain level of education is required to progress beyond a certain point, i.e. law, accountancy, engineering etc.
The ideal is a good combination of both theoretical knowledge and practical understanding, and I believe this is better. However, from what I see on a day to day basis, the comfort blanket of seeing an individual with the exact match of experience to a vacancy swings an employer in most circumstances”.
What do you think is more important, experience or qualifications? Join the debate and let us know your thoughts in the comments box below!
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.