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Qualifications? Experience? Which one is the winner?

Qualifications? Experience? Which one is the winner?

August 11, 2021

As competition for jobs gets tougher, applicants are advised to improve their qualifications. Now there are more and more people going to university, but does it really make a difference?

We are looking at the age-old question; which is more important, hands-on experience or a string of letters after your name? Opinions would seem to be very mixed. With university placements becoming more expensive, it is no wonder that people are having second thoughts.  Add into this the fact that some employers complain that well-qualified graduates don’t come equipped to operate within the real world, and experience would appear to have the upper hand.

Let’s look at both and see how they balance out against each other.


Getting a university degree is about much more than purely demonstrating an individual’s academic abilities. Once thrown into the throngs of university life, other benefits begin to make an appearance.  Think social skills, intellectual, personal, ethical, sporting and so on and you can see that a university newbie comes out the other end a very different person.

When employers place ads, specifying that a degree is required, they are placing a lot of value on this one element.  But it is easy to see why. They hope they will end up with an applicant who not only knows their subject well but who will easily fit in with an already existing corporate culture. Their theory is that they will be better equipped than someone straight out of school or college.

A quick look at the job market shows that there are more skilled jobs than manual. For years, it has been perceived that a degree sets you up with a good start in life, but qualifications without experience can often make finding a position much tougher than first imagined. Imagine two people applying for the same post, one with a degree and one with relevant industry experience. Both are of the same intelligence.  Which one would the employer choose? This is a difficult question as it could be said that education brings with it a greater degree of understanding. Experience provides you with the real-life ability to do something, knowing it will work whereas education provides not only theoretical knowledge but also analytical skills. To summarise, experienced candidates easily take on board new processes and technology but those with qualifications learn faster, absorbing knowledge at a faster rate.

As far as the employer is concerned, the ideal mix is a graduate that has spent some time working in the industry.  This could be why many job hunters are opting to take on trainee positions with university study included. They learn whilst on the job and the employer ends up with a valuable employee who is able to blend theory and application.


But with so many people looking to obtain a university degree, is it really the right choice? Look at it this way; is a candidate with three years’ suitable industry experience and training qualifications less worthy of the role than someone fresh out of university with zero experience? Let’s simplify it:

University candidate – 3 years of study, zero experience and a large debt.

Non-university candidate – 3 years on-the-job experience, associated qualifications and earnings of more than £30k.

Which one should get the job? It it’s the latter, then maybe the job market needs to change, with more weight being given to those that have been doing the job already.

With so many people now obtaining degrees, it has become the norm to have to study. However, research shows that employers are less impressed with graduate candidates, preferring to focus more on those with apt experience.

Put it this way – if you are an employer faced with two candidates, one a newly qualified graduate with no real-world experience and the other a college leaver with three years’ experience, which one do you choose? Whilst in the past it may have been the university graduate, now it is the opposite with many valuing experience over qualifications.

Take some time out and check out job specifications online.  Ones that used to state that a degree was essential now refer to it as being beneficial instead. When CVs are compared, employers tend to look at experience long before they touch on the qualifications section.

Because a three-year period of degree study by itself isn’t enough, apprenticeships are becoming much more commonplace.  After all, they offer a win-win scenario.  The apprentice learns practically and academically whilst on the job and earning money and the employer knows they will end with a suitably skilled employee.


No matter which way you look at it, the perfect combination is a blend of theoretical knowledge and practical understanding.  Add into the equation the current turmoil in universities due to Covid-19 and it’s easy to see that the future may bring something altogether different.  As the cost of getting a degree becomes even more out of reach for many and the practicalities of attending university difficult, they may be a move away from traditional university courses towards apprenticeships and practical training.

The real world of work is a tough place.  Ask any recruiter whom an employer will choose faced with two candidates, one with a wealth of relevant experience and the other an academic degree and they will go with the former. When time is money and training people to do the job expensive, they want an employee who can add value from day one.  A degree may bolster hard-earned experience but it doesn’t really replace it.


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