Employers: Should you hire Experience or Degrees?

Irene Gloria Addison

The inspiration for the present article came from a long public chit-chat discussion on LinkedIn; but it seems that the question as to whether you should hire someone with lots of experience or lots of education is a very old one.

Can experience really make up for the lack of a degree? Will you let an experienced nurse to operate on you? But you will let an apprenticing Intern…

Can a University degree ever provide something that experience cannot?

Which one is truly more valuable than the other?

All these are trap- questions because the right answer to all of them is: “it depends“.

Some Educational Findings.

In September 2012, the Chronicle of Higher Education, surveyed 50.000 US Employers. Here are some interesting numbers from that study:

  • More than 3 out of 10 Employers believe that Universities and other Higher Education Institutes do a very bad or ‘below average’/ sub-par job in preparing students for the real work force (it was 3.1 out of 10 Employers in 2012, in 2017 seems to be 3.7 out of 10).
  • The Services / Retail (39%), Health Care (35%), and Media / Communications (35%) indicated that colleges and universities are doing a “fair” or “poor” job — more than any other industry.
  • (to translate the above, Universities graduate people with minimal Client Service Attitude or Service Education, and people coming out of Media and Communication programs, are not that great in Effective Communication, despite English been their 1st or native language).
  • Only 2% find the candidates well-prepared for today’s job market while 31% find them unprepared.
  • The Employer- majority across all industries and hiring levels, place more weight on experience, particularly internships and employment during school vs. academic credentials including GPA and college major when evaluating a recent graduate for employment.
  • When it comes to the skills most needed by employers, job candidates are lacking most in written and oral communication skills, adaptability and managing multiple priorities, and making decisions and problem solving. Employers place this responsibility on colleges to prepare graduates in written and oral communications and decision-making skills.
  • Only 19% of employers look for specific majors and do not consider candidates without them, while the majority – 78% will consider any major. Executives are least interested in looking for candidates with specific majors (14%) than Managers (19%) and HR (19%).

Some thoughts on Education

  • A University degree is not just about the potential candidate employee getting a job or having a career. The benefits of a University education should be hopefully reflected on your candidates’ ability to think – please, I am not implying that practitioners have their mind ‘turned off’. Also, a University education should benefit a candidate in all parts of his/her life’s: personal, ethical, intellectual, social, economic, etc.
  • This ‘degree’ obsession is caused by Corporate and Recruiting Firms’ Recruiters, who write ‘safe’ job advertisements requiring a specific degree for a given job. And suddenly, the whole job- market starts valuing degrees.
  • A professional certification (e.g. PMI or ACCA or ITIL or CIPS or CMI or CIM or whatever), it might be more valuable than an HND or a Bachelors or even a Master’s (FYI an accredited CMI or CIM or even a CIPD Level 7 Diploma has the same value in the UK as a Masters). But if you read the smart print, all these professional qualifications guarantee an acquired minimum level of knowledge and they are not a real ‘license’ or warranty for on- the- job performance.
  • In 2017, even in Africa (obviously in Ghana too), there are more knowledge workers than 20-30 years who when our parents were entering the job market. The average office worker today has to use more ‘grey matter’ than his predecessors 20-30 years ago.
  • Sure, work experience may teach an employee that ‘doing it that way does not work’, and education may give the candidate the theoretical knowledge and analytical skill to show why it does not work. But employers complain worldwide for ‘underperforming’ Universities and not for underperforming ‘work- experience’. Think about it.
  • Finally, there is the misperception that educated candidates learn faster and more deeply. As a contrary proof to that allow me to present the real life ‘case’ where universities in Europe & the US for the past 10+ have been accepting Masters and MBA students without them having completed a single University course past their High School, as long as they have amble work experience and they can demonstrate the mental ability and maturity to go postgraduate level work.

Obviously, there are fields e.g. all Health & Medical Sciences where a degree might be a must.

I use ‘might be’ because a lot of modern hospital equipment provides full medical diagnosis and needs just an operator with few months training, while in the past it needed a doctor to do the same work and diagnosis.

Does Experience rules?

  • If you were to hire a college- dropout with 4 years of relevant experience or a candidate fresh out of a 4-year University programme, honestly whom will you choose?

Who do you think that will add more value to your organization?

  • When is the last time that you looked at the formal University degree qualifications of an experienced IT Developer?
  • Do even all your HR Assistants are University graduates?
  • Sadly, a Bachelors’ degree today is what a High School Diploma was 20-30 years ago.
  • Also, long expired is the notion of a University Degree implying the proven ability to analyze problems, or to learn complex new staff or to have super interpersonal & communications skills.
  • Btw, College graduates still ‘employ’ Poor spelling, bad grammar in their CVs and Cover Letters; or they are even unable to write a targeted cover letter.
  • Slightly less than one-third (31%) of employers require a bachelor’s degree if a position advertised for one. Nearly 70% of employers are open to considering non-degreed candidate who are particularly outstanding or the right fit. (Chronicle of Higher Education 2012 Survey).
  • Obviously the ‘ability’ to be a team-player is not something that can be taught in college.

E&Y UK: An interesting Case Study for hiring ‘University Leavers’.

In August 2016, E&Y in the UK was supposed to have started recruiting University Leavers and non-Accountancy majors, using instead a series of numerical tests and online “strength” assessments to assess the potential of applicants.

According to Ms. Maggie Stilwell, EY’s Managing Partner for Talent in the UK, these changes would:

“open up opportunities for talented individuals regardless of their background and provide greater access to the profession”.

Academic qualifications will still be taken into account and indeed remain an important consideration when assessing candidates as a whole, but will no longer act as a barrier to getting a foot in the door. Our own internal research of over 400 graduates found that screening students based on academic performance alone was too blunt an approach to recruitment.

It found no evidence to conclude that previous success in higher education correlated with future success in subsequent professional qualifications undertaken. Instead, the research found a positive correlation between certain strengths which could be assessed and success in professional qualifications.

Transforming our recruitment policy is intended to create a more even and fair playing field for all candidates, giving every applicant the opportunity to prove their abilities,” Ms Stilwell added.

I have tried to reach them for an update, but unfortunately, I have not yet received one.

Should you hire Overqualified Employees?

There is this weird old fashion assumption that there is the risk that an overqualified employee will soon become bored and unmotivated, so they will either underperform or leave.

Please show me just one single business case study that has proven that! Just one please! The risk is more likely to be for an incompetent or unqualified manager (if that is the case) of that overqualified employee!

Actually, all studies show that people leave a company because of bad management or bad working conditions and not because their skills are above what is needed for their current role. If that was the case, there would be no career climbing.

Please don’t confuse education and experience (even too much of either) with someone’s actual skills; a candidate with lots of experience still may not have the capabilities to do the given job. So, no one is really overqualified or overexperienced if they are not able to do that very job at acceptable performance levels.

So, before you reject such a candidate, try to understand:

  • what they can really do both now and in the future for your organization,
  • who they are as candidates/ humans
  • whether and how you can extend or (re)define the scope of that job/ role in order to accommodate a unique candidate.

Some 2017 Numbers.

These are from the 2017 Job Outlook survey from NACE (the National Association of Colleges and Employers):

  • 91 % percent of employers prefer that their candidates have work experience
  • 65% prefer their candidates to have relevant work experience.
  • Another 26 % prefer work experience of any type.
  • Only a mere 5% say that work experience is not a factor when hiring new graduates.
  • Regarding how a graduate’s work experience was gained, 56% prefer that it comes from an internship or a co-op study programme.

In Conclusion

Finally, it looks like that there is no such thing as a strong “employer preference” between education and experience. Some managers won’t look at anyone without a blue-chip educational history and they will not even meet a candidate unless they have graduated from one of the best universities.

But is that the kind of a manager you want working in your organization?

But, it seems that relevant experience is slowly becoming the ‘King’ or to be more precise, Employers care more about what value you can add to their organizations and how (if they have to ‘mentor’/ supervise you every single second so that you can outperform, is most likely not an option) and whether you have a degree from Circus University or Harvard is getting less and less relevant.

Thank you and Good Luck,


About the Author: Irene Gloria Addison is the owner of HIREghana [Human Intelligence Recruitment], a niche HRM & Organizational Development Consultancy and a Leader Ghanaian Recruitment Agency, based in Accra.

Irene welcomes your feedback/ comments/ remarks/ suggestions via your email message to Press [at ] HIREgh.com. HIREghana can be reached at +233 50 228 5155 or +233 266 555 907

Our website is http://www.hiregh.com

© 2017 Irene Gloria Addison and © 2017 Human Intelligence Recruitment


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