Our guides for employers and candidates on how to navigate the entry-level job market.

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Qualifications or Experience: What Comes First When Hiring?

Isabel Morris

Evaluating job applicants isn’t a simple, straightforward matter of comparing years of education or experience. Instead, it’s about determining the value of applicants’ education and experience, and deciding whether their attitude and personality are a good match with your organisation.

Ultimately, you’re hoping to find the candidate whose skills, experience, training and education fit best with your company’s role.
So, what comes first when hiring: qualifications or experience?

In short, it depends. Some employers focus exclusively on applicants’ qualifications as they sift through resumes, honing in on universities, degrees and results. Other employers value applicants’ experience above all else. For them, a year’s worth of industry experience is worth more than a three-year degree in a related subject.

As an employer, it’s important to realise which attributes of applicants you focus on when recruiting and how that ultimately influences your hiring decisions. You’re likely to be swayed by your own unconscious preferences and biases, as well as those of your colleagues and wider professional network. You’ll also probably have the history and current state of your company somewhere in the back of your mind when you make decisions.

Thus, it’s important to take a step back and think about whether applicants’ qualifications and experience really matter, and if they do, how you should go about evaluating them.

Qualifications such as university degrees, apprenticeship qualifications and vocational certificates reveal a lot more about applicants than simply their ability in a particular area. Completing any kind of certification requires discipline and hard work, and the experience itself often provides participants with key transferable skills and access to long-lasting networks.

Recent graduates in fields that require specific technical skills – such as nursing, engineering or software development – might need to have the kind of up-to-date knowledge of the industry that comes with a qualification in order to do their job well. For this reason, it might be the case that you give precedence to applicants with credible qualifications over those with relatively fewer qualifications but more industry experience.

However, be careful not to attribute too much unnecessary weight to applicants’ education – i.e. don’t focus on things like the reputation of an applicant’s college to the exclusion of anything else! To identify and hire top talent, it’s essential to keep in mind that things like attending a prestigious university don’t directly translate to competence. The value of practical experience and certifications from online or part-time courses, as well as the transferable skills gained through extracurricular involvement and leadership experience, shouldn’t be underestimated.

As HR consultant Suzanne Lucas explains in her TED talk, you should be aiming to hire people who are willing and able to learn new skills, rather than those who already have them. Especially given the increasing number of people getting degrees nowadays, finding the best candidate for your job should involve asking “Can this applicant learn how to do something?” rather than “Does she already know it?”.

In general, experience will be reviewed first. For everything, that is, except for junior- or entry-level positions, for which many applicants apply straight out of university or college with minimal previous experience.

For highly technical fields – for example nursing or software engineering – where having some sort of qualification is essential for securing any entry-level job, experience would understandably come second to qualifications. But for fields where day-to-day knowledge of the industry is the key to success, applicants’ experience – including their apprenticeships or sandwich years in industry – can sometimes take precedence over their qualifications.

Industry experience shows applicants’ commitment to and interest in your sector. Not only will they bring their expertise to your workplace and take comparatively less time to train, they’ll also already have contacts within the industry and will be less likely to flake out when the opportunity presents itself.

Remember: if a candidate lacks experience, don’t be afraid to bring it up during their interview. Evaluating the responses they give can be a helpful way of deciding whether or not they’ll be a good hire.

Of course, in most fields qualifications and experience go hand in hand. Your ideal candidate will probably be someone with solid foundations in both theoretical knowledge and practical understanding. While there are great benefits from each, they work even better together – there’s a reason that some universities add years in industry to their degrees!