Qualifications or experience - What's more important?

  • July 08, 2022

So… Is one more important than the other?

The debate over which is more important, qualifications or experience, is an old one, which has plagued both job seekers and recruiters for decades. The answer has changed over time, and is never as clear cut as some would like it to be. 

This article investigates the importance of each, and tries to tackle the all-important question of what you should be focusing on. 

Why some deem qualifications to be more important

Whilst experience can give you a seemingly thorough understanding of whichever field you work in, learning through osmosis has its downsides as well. As you’re being paid to produce results, you seldom have time to reflect. 

The way you’ll come to do things is often the first way that has produced positive results; you simply don’t always have the time or resources to try things in different ways, which could fail, when you’re on company time. Studying a subject takes this problem out of the equation. 

You have resources at your disposal – most importantly, time. This allows you to study the theoretical aspects of your field, to gain a more introspective understanding than you might otherwise. This theoretical knowledge can help develop your field, allowing you to move beyond what ‘works’ to something that works better.

Why some deem experience to be more important

While education is undeniably important, an individual can have a degree in a subject but have absolutely no idea of the practicalities it entails. 

The workplace brings a thousand other dimensions which cannot be included in textbooks, from the intricacies of human interaction to working well in a team, and with other departments. Learning on the job can produce results incredibly rapidly; the pressure is on, and as you’re an employee, failure carries far more significant consequences than during formal education. 

It is often these less tangible elements of the workplace that determine productivity and success – an individual who is personable, and knows how to work with people, with solid knowledge of the common trip ups that arise in the work which aren’t taught in the classroom, will often outperform a university graduate who has no knowledge of any of these things.

Which is more important now?

It seems that at the moment, employers want both. In a survey carried out by Universum, a recruitment specialist, it found that 58% of leading employers preferred graduates with work experience to those with a high grade or a leading university on their CV. 

Ernst & Young have gone as far as removing degree classification from their criteria completely, which is perhaps a tell-tale sign of broader, industry wide trends towards a focus on experience. 

While this shows that experience is a significant factor for recruiters, it does show they value degrees as well. The ideal candidate will thus be both university educated, and with a decent level of experience. This is no mean feat to achieve!

Will I need a degree to apply for entry level jobs?

In a competitive job market, where employers have hundreds or even thousands of applications for a single position, it becomes necessary for recruiters to make more and more stringent requirements to filter out all but the best, most suitable applicants. 

As the ideal candidate, regardless of personal attributes, is statistically most likely to be the combination of both a graduate and having solid work experience, the easiest way to attract the ideal candidate is to narrow the application criteria to those two variables. It thus becomes harder and harder to get a job with no qualifications or experience.

Some fields are effectively impossible to enter without high-level qualifications and experience. These include the legal profession, where a training contract can be considered paid experience, with paid or unpaid internships often desired as prerequisites, many positions in international organisations (IOs) such as the UN, many management consultancy positions, the list goes on. Essentially, these jobs entail working with industries to sort out internal errors – whether legal, financial, or both. 

To do these jobs well, knowledge of the industry is indispensable, as well as a deep theoretical knowledge of legal parlance, regulatory hurdles, and other less intuitive elements of industry. 

Entry level jobs are of course available in many fields for those without degrees. However, not having a degree will slow down your ascension through the ranks, and you’re more likely to reach a glass ceiling. According to the ONS, in 2016 graduates on average earned £9,500 more per year than non-graduates. So, while it’s possible to get started without a degree, continual progression may be halted, or at least slowed, without one.

Making sure you have both aspects covered

One of the most significant barriers to higher education – both perceived and real – is the cost. While loans are readily available, maintenance loans alone aren’t enough for some to live on, especially if you have dependents, and the prospect of leaving university with significant debts (on average £40,000) is daunting to many. There are however alternative methods of achieving qualifications, which can both be cheaper and facilitate working full or part time on the side. 

One such option is open universities. These educational institutions are often far more flexible than traditional universities. They often have more lenient entry requirements, can be taken part time, are cheaper than standard university courses, and you can pick and choose your modules. 

You don’t have to do a full undergraduate course – you can do as many modules and get as many credits as you like, allowing you to hone your learning to the areas you believe are most important to your personal and professional development.

One of the best ways to gain experience is through internships. This is often done while at university, during the summer break for example. 

One of the big bonuses of internships is that if you impress the place you’re working at, you may very well be given an offer of employment for after you graduate, taking a lot of the stress out of the job search process. Even if you don’t get an employment offer, it will still look great on your CV!

Photo by Albert Vincent Wu on Unsplash