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Qualifications or experience: what’s more important?

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19 January 2021
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Qualifications or experience: what’s more important?
An academic and recruitment expert debate the age old question. Whose side are you on?

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?

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 rigor, 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”.

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 than 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 favor 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. 

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