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Experience or a Degree - What Do Today's Employers Value Most?

At some point in your career, you may decide to apply for a job and find that you have the skills and years of experience required but lack the required degree for the position. Or, you may have the applicable education/degree but don’t have any (or enough) relevant experience. You may ask: Do employers focus more on experience or education when assessing a job candidate? Also, what can I do if I find myself missing one or the other? Following are some factors to consider as well as steps you can take to ensure you stand out as a highly qualified and desirable job candidate.

Employer Preferences are Industry-Dependent

One way to know whether an employer places more value on education or experience is to look at the industry you are in. If you are in sales or a field such as construction or retail, having had that customer-facing or hands-on experience will be more essential. If you are in technology, healthcare, finance or other professional fields, a degree as well as continuing education and industry-related certifications will be a strict requirement. In many industries, a college degree can increase your chances of getting a job, but it often takes more than an education to impress employers.

Preferences Also Vary Among Individual Organizations and Managers

Each organization has its own history, corporate culture, financial status and profile of the ideal employee - all of which will influence what areas are focused on when hiring. Each hiring manager will have their own preferences and judgements as well - some may want to see an Ivy League or equivalent degree, while others will only want proof that you can do the job. You’ll need to continuously assess your job search as you go, looking carefully at each opportunity, company and hiring manager and considering whether you are offering the qualifications that matter to them.

Being a College Grad is Not Enough

If you think that having a college degree from a reputable school is all you’ll need to get an entry-level job, think again. No matter where their degree comes from, college graduates with experience are more desirable than ones without - and there are plenty of them out there. In fact, recent reports state that grads without experience have a slim chance of finding a job and today’s employers consider experience just as important as education. That’s why many students these days are looking for internships, apprenticeships or employment related to their field of study during school breaks and even while attending school.

The Quality of Your Education or Experience Matters

When it comes to considering a candidate’s degree, employers like to see that you attended a reputable school. This doesn’t mean you need to get an Ivy League education but have attended a school that ranks high among schools in your field and in terms of graduate success. As far as experience, employers won’t be impressed that you simply worked 40 hours a week for several years. They’ll want to know what you accomplished and contributed to the company’s innovation, promotion or bottom line.

Employers Want Candidates with a Variety of Talents

Right now, the economy is strong and unemployment rates are low, making the competition for jobs not so stiff. However, job candidates still need to think about bringing many things to the table - experience and education, but also “soft” skills (a positive attitude, strong work ethic, good time management skills, etc.) that are often learned in school but honed through work experience. Some skillsets, such as managing people and verbal communications, can really only be acquired in the workplace.

Identifying Future Skills Needed in Your Industry

In order to advance your career in your chosen field, you need to research and stay abreast of changes and trends in your industry and identify the skills that will be needed in the future. Some of these skills will require training or education, others will require experience (or both). For example, when social media exploded in popularity 15+ years ago, anyone in marketing, particularly public relations, needed to understand not only how to use the platforms but how to maximize them to build awareness and create customer engagement. By staying on top of developments in your industry, you will positon yourself as someone who is a step ahead.

Addressing What’s Missing

What should you do if you lack a degree or experience? If you’re a college grad who lacks experience in the workplace, interning and volunteering offer great opportunities to get that experience and show you are dedicated to your career. If your resume lacks the educational credentials but you have the experience, you may want to apply for the job anyway. It could be that the degree isn't as important to the hiring manager as the experience required and if needed, you could take classes part-time or online or obtain certificates. By doing so, employers will take notice that you are investing in your career.

The Bottom Line

Getting back to the experience versus education argument, there is no clear winner. If you are looking for a job, you may want to find ways to strengthen any areas you are missing. In the end, your job search success will hinge on many factors. As long as you have confidence and motivation, and know your stuff, you will find an organization that values you and what you bring to the table - and that is the opportunity that will be the right fit!

Hiring Managers Look for Related Experience First
What Counts as Experience on a College Grad's Resume
Writing a Resume When You Have No Experience
Hey Grads! No Experience? No Problem! (Sort of)

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