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Education or Experience? It Depends.

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Education or Experience? It Depends.
Shai Walker
Webster University

Author Note
This paper was prepared for Staffing and Selection HRMG 5800, Section 54, taught by Professor Karns.
Can experience make up for the lack of a degree, or does a degree provide something that experience cannot? Is one more valuable than the other? Talk about a discussion that will have you chasing your tail! It's truly a trap debate because the right answer is "it depends". Whether it's a completely strategic discussion about your organization's policies or a discussion involving a specific position and candidate, this issue continually resurfaces at organizations. And depending on what side of the fence you sit, this issue can be very personal and emotional. Obviously, there are specific cases where the question is debatable. If you need a registered professional engineer to approve plans, the degree requirement is a given. If you're a hospital looking for a surgeon, you're probably seeking someone with a PhD in medicine. However, the scope of positions that may or may not require a degree gets gray pretty fast, and the span is pretty wide. And, no industry is immune to this issue. Keywords: experience, degree, organizations, policies, professional, requirement, industry.
Education or Experience? It Depends.
Take this scenario: Bob and Joe are both applying for the same job. They each interview well, but Bob has 15 years’ experience and no college degree, and Joe is fresh out of college with no experience. Who gets the job? The answer is: it depends. Here are some factors to consider when it comes to the battle between education and experience.
Career Field
There are some careers where experience is preferred over education and vice versa. In sales for instance, having a track record of dollars brought into the company will far outweigh any degree. Likewise, in a high-tech field, a recent college degree that consists of studying the latest developments might give you a leg-up over the candidate with the experience in your field. Vocational fields like construction will value experience over education for obvious reasons. I learned that your chosen career field will dictate how education and experience stack up against each other.
There is always the question of, “Does it matter where I obtain my degree?” Alison Green (2012) believes that yes, your school matters, at least in the beginning of your career. How much it matters depends on your field and your specific employer. In my experience, it is very obvious that not all experience or education is created equal. A degree from a top school in your field will open doors simply for its reputation; a degree from a college with a lesser reputation won't help you nearly as much. Green (2012) went on to explain, in some fields, like investment banking and big law firms, employers only hire from top tier schools. And while there are plenty of fields where that’s not the case, in most graduating from an elite or highly competitive school is still seen as shorthand for “really smart and hard-working.” And that’s something employers very much care about. On the opposing side, Lynn O'Shaughnessy does not think where you obtain your degree matters stating, “It matters not at all where they got their degrees but rather what they did with their time in the colleges they did attend. It matters what kind of person they are, how persistent they are, how hard they work, how creative they are, and how they present themselves.” Earning your degree while working full time is something the HR Professionals see as a huge plus. That gives you a reputation of being a dedicated hard worker willing to make sacrifices - a reputation that will help you when you sit down to interview for a job.
When it comes to experience, reputation is just as important: simply clocking 40 hours a week for 15 years isn't going to win you any points. How did you add to the company's bottom line? Did you innovate, win awards, bring in new business, promote? Reputation matters when it comes to both education and experience.
Company Policy
Some companies may allow you to substitute experience for a college education, but others have a tougher policy, requiring a college degree, no substitutions. The Company I work for, Denny’s Inc. {DENN}, you do not need a college education in most departments. Our CEO, John Miller, only has a High School Diploma and is doing excellent. He offers over 30 years of direct experience, which in this case, outweighs education. In Departments such as Finance and Legal, a college degree is required. If you are working in either of those departments and looking to get promoted within, it is a requirement that you have a degree. You may be the best candidate, but unless you go to college, you'll be stuck where you are. Also note that certain industries, like education and healthcare, require education to qualify for necessary certification.


The Department of Labor reports that over the last few decades, employees with a college degree earn roughly 77% more than those with only a high school diploma, making a strong case for a college education. Does this mean you should sign up at the nearest college? Not so fast - college debt is also on the rise, with many college graduates struggling to pay their student loans. In Figure 1 provided by U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, you will find that in 2012, the median of earnings for young adults with a bachelor's degree was $46,900, while the median was $22,900 for those without a high school credential and $30,000 for those with a high school credential. In other words, young adults with a bachelor's degree earned more than twice as much as those without a high school credential (105 percent more) and 57 percent more than young adult high school completers.
So what to do if you lack education or experience? For college grads, interning offers a great opportunity to get that experience and show you're willing to invest into your career. According to World Wide Learn (2015), internships can help you round out your work experience and make you a highly attractive candidate for jobs after graduation. I completed my internship with Denny’s in the Human Resource Department and Diversity Affairs and Community Relations Department. If I would not have received that hands on exposure and done well, I doubt I would have been able to land the HR Regional Recruiter role a few months after graduating college. Because of my training within that internship, I was able to start my career without interviewing. Everything was based on my performance during my internship as well as networking. It pays off to stay in contact with hiring managers. Likewise, volunteering can give you a resume boost; look for positions that will give you the experience you need, even if it's not in your field.
If your resume lacks in education credits, but you can't commit to a four-year degree, look at taking classes in your field to show that you're investing in your career and thinking ahead; technology skills are always in demand, and many colleges offer online classes and certificates.
The Economy
It is no secret that most college graduates are struggling to find work in their field of study or any field for that matter. One of the many reasons you go to college is to further your education to land your dream. I will never forget constantly being told, “Not enough experience” for entry level employment upon graduating college in 2012. I remember thinking, “In order to get experience you have to give me a chance.” Then you start to question is going to college was even worth it. When you look at case studies and statistics of unemployment for those with a degree versus those with only a high school diploma, you really start to think college was overrated, especially with the debt you have accrued that is impossible to pay back without a steady income.
Heidi Shierholz, Alyssa Davis, and Will Kimball composed an article called, “The Class of 2014: The Weak Economy Is Idling Too Many Young Graduates”. Their combined research outlines how the labor market has made a slow progress toward full recovery from the The Great Recession which officially ended in June 2009. For the sake of the research paper, I have included statistics to compare Unemployment rate of young high school graduates, by gender, 1989–2014 (Figure 2) and Unemployment rate of young high school graduates, by gender, 1989–2014 (Figure 3).
So you ask, Education or Experience? The answer still remains, “It depends”.
Education vs. Work Experience. (2015, January 13). Retrieved February 8, 2015, from
Green, A. (2012, June 12). Do Employers Really Care Where You Went To School? - Ask a Manager. Retrieved February 11, 2015, from
O'Shaughnessy, L. (2013, April 19). Does Where You Go to School Matter to Employers? Retrieved February 21, 2015, from
Shierholz, H., Davis, A., & Kimball, W. (2014, May 1). The Class of 2014: The Weak Economy Is Idling Too Many Young Graduates. Retrieved February 8, 2015, from U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2014). The Condition of Education 2014 (NCES 2014-083),Annual Earnings of Young Adults.

Figure 1
Median annual earnings of full-time year-round wage and salary workers ages 25–34, by educational attainment: 1995–2012

NOTE: Earnings are presented in constant dollars, based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI), to eliminate inflationary factors and to allow for direct comparison across years. Full-time year-round workers are those who worked 35 or more hours per week for 50 or more weeks per year.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2014). The Condition of Education 2014 (NCES 2014-083),Annual Earnings of Young Adults.

Figure 2

Figure 3

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