A Look at the Education vs Experience Debate

I understand the education versus training and experience debate, and I agree with the writer who said, “The answer is one that will keep you chasing your tail as you pursue it.”

So, why have this discussion. Most of us will not deny that the best employees have both education, training and experience, but what about being more realistic, especially in the current job market. Let’s face it, whomever we hire must be able to do the job.

In Cave Man perspective here my answer to the education versus training and experience debate:

  • the person who has the knowledge or experience is important;
  • the one who has both the knowledge and the ability to use it is more important;
  • the one who has knowledge and experience (not necessarily all of either) but can help others figure out the best mix and direct it for the good of all is head of the cave.

Are there advantages education has over experience. Sure. Experience over education. Absolutely.

If there ever was a situation that called out for individual assessment this is it. We use to revere knowledge and we generally reward those that have it incrementally. There are lofty high-paid exceptions these days where performance and the ability to bring in income does not relate to education at all but a particular marketable skill. Super salesman come to mind; some educated, some not, but born with natural ability.

It also depends on the degree of need, another business function. Life and death matters depend on highly skilled people (highly educated in the case of doctors); however, specialized skills matter.

Then, let’s not forget the sports stars, some of whom make a tremendous amount of money may have gotten their start in college sports, were recognized and life changed for awhile until they need the education to fall back on. There are, of course, movie stars that will draw people to the theatre and make film makers a lot of money. To keep the “geese laying the golden eggs” we must pay them what they are worth.

But how do we know that when these exceptions aren’t the way it should be? We don’t.

Hence, we must weigh each case carefully. Not all great athletes become sports stars just as not all actors of note become stars. Many smart people don’t go to college and have learned a lot from life’s experiences; and many dumb people make it through college, and haven’t a clue what to do with that education. Both education and experience mean something.

Education means knowledge and experience means you know what to do with that knowledge. So with both, you’re perfect. Maybe. Sort of. Depends. Education specific to the work is best. but that is not to say something close doesn’t have advantages as well. There are gray areas, which is why most job listings say degrees such as or something similar. Note the ambiguity. It’s almost like we won’t know until we see it.

What is the reality?

Corporate culture determines who fits best. If education and youth has been its cornerstone of success, you can bet that is where they will look for new employees. Chances are that they also are prepared to train to young employees the way the company likes to do things.

Another type of company may have a different culture, but it’s also based on different needs. Maybe this company needs people who have a lot of technical knowledge and plant experience, knowledge of business management without totally understanding the working environment may not be as valuable. Having someone with experience, plus education even gained later at a local, no-name college, makes for someone better equipped for the job.

Obviously there are professions that require the education before you even start, add an internship period to gain the basic experience, then a career may start. For musician or any artist, it helps to know the history and techniques of creating music or art, but it’s not necessary for success if the artist receives the necessary acclaim for his or her skill and unique artistry. See me chasing my tail now. We’re back with the exceptions. There are always exceptions.

Wherever the public seems to be involved as a factor to determine worth, the education doesn’t matter–only results.

It’s even the same with politicians. We may be impressed with one’s fancy education, number of degrees, and vast experience–and elect that politician to high office. Let the results show he or she is not doing the job we expected, we forget all the qualifications that brought our vote in the first place.

It really does depend on the job and the environment.

A great deal depends on the reviewer’s personal view of the validity of each. In today’s economic strife, we see attorneys vying for jobs with others less educated but qualified by experience. The grumbling is on both sides, but the economy has made it a necessity. Attorneys without jobs are not lawyers arguing cases; they are people educated with law degrees. Does that make them somehow superior to someone who has been doing the same job–let’s say something relative like writing government policy or studying regulations, which you don’t have to have a law degree to do?

Of course not, except they have the same skill set and practiced it (experience) in law school. They understand how policy and regulations are not far off from law; they are quite similar in fact. In the interview process, you want to know who can do the job you need to do. Here, it would be evaluating policy and regs for validity, writing policy and regs, and ensuring they are all-inclusive. So, here is an example where it is not so much that it is an advanced degree as much as that degree gave the individual the desired training and experience as well. The specific topics can be learned–especially by someone who is good at research and applying that research–another lawyer skill.

But now let’s turn to managers.

According to one of the articles listed here, “A recent Center for Creative Leadership study found that only 10 percent of the knowledge needed to become an effective manager is learned in the classroom.” The statement is little vague by itself, but I would venture a guess that the missing 90 percent had to do with leadership traits and corporate culture–some point specific to the company in question.

There’s more: “Companies emphasize training courses to build their employees’ leadership skills, yet the study concluded that the best way to acquire such skills is through experience gained by working on challenging assignments.”

We know many leaders emerge in just those situations, which begs the question: Can you educate a leader? Can you train one? These are pretty complicated questions themselves.

Suffice it to say that the statements certainly point out the need to weigh individual situations carefully.

I also suggest that a career path or career ladder be made a part of any hiring process. Some companies tend to hire for a specific job and a fit with the company culture, but they need to be aware an applicant is looking at long-term as well with the company.

Taking care of that individual by providing a road map to success can’t be a bad idea if the company is honest and consistent about applying it. Motivation to learn what they do not know is half the battle. To answer the question: Do you think on-the-job experience is more important than formal training when it comes to learning how to manage people? Depends again. Chasing that tail.

For more information on the debate, I’ve included some web sites that may be useful.

That’s it. I’m getting a bit dizzy from chasing my tail. I know I’ve only touched the surface of the debate. If you take anything away from this discussion, please take this: the terms we see on job descriptions that qualify people is the starting point. Each case is different, and people can surprise with what they know about the world–however they came by that knowledge: education or experience. Education gave me pieces of paper; experience gave me a headache putting it down effectively in resume. I couldn’t have succeeded without both, but we all have to start some place.

These are my words and opinions. Please feel free to disagree and comment, or contact me. If you’re interested in more of my points of view–my Cave Man way of looking at things, I have a website with other pieces on other subjects such as training, communication, and believe it or not, theatre, a reflection of our world. Happy training.

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Peter Sperry

One thing to keep in mind is the difference between 20 years of experience and 2 years repeated 10 times. When you find yourself looking at your job with a “been there, done that” attitude (usually about the 3rd year), it is time to move on. The same concept applies to education. One greaduate certificate in a subject area is useful. Two might show some initiative. Three or more in the same subject are just wall paper.

Lynne Lapierre

I have 20+ years in accounting and running a business. However, no formal degree. I have returned to college to obtain that piece of paper to hang on the wall in Management. I have been able to use life skills as part of my credits, however, they still require me to pay for classes that I really do not need to take. I am paying for knowledge I already have, but if I don’t and was in need of securing employment I would not even get a chance to apply without a degree.

Dawn Lautwein

When I first started reading this, I was equating Education with having a degree and Experience with years on the job. I’ve seen enough people with a degree that seem quite inept, that I was leaning toward experience being more important. But neither getting degrees or putting in years at a job alone benefit you, except on a resume, it is the learning that takes place along the way combined with the attitude that you bring to the job that seem most important to me.

Allison Primack

This post sparked a very interesting poll on GovLoop’s Facebook. Originally the only choices were “education” and “experience”, but some people added their own answers. Here were the results:

– Frequency of Lycanthropic Change (12 people)

– Experience (11 people)

– Attitude (3 people)

– Education (1 person)

– Short Skirt (1 person)

Lynne Lapierre

Some companies are using computer programs to screen their applicants. If a degree is a requirement, the computer system will not even allow that candidate an interview if NONE is checked, regardless of experience. Give an experienced applicant the opportunity to at least interview. Let them sell themselves. An experienced interviewer should be able to determine the knowledge of the applicant. Sometimes life skills are more valuable than text/online classes. So fortunately, when I am done, I will have both a degree and life skills.

Tamara Lamb-Ghenee

Peter…your observation about 2 years experience repeated 10 times is critical for hiring officials and HR to note. Breadth and depth of experience is more important than years. While we need a threshold of education for many jobs (like the physicians in the article), we should evaluate candidates more closely than job titles and dates of employment on the resume. The emergency room physician in a big city with a couple of years under his belt likely has more breadth and depth of experience than the country doctor with ten.

Jack Shaw

Unfortunately, as many of you have pointed out, sometimes you need both the education certificate and the experience just to get in door. It’s frustrating seeing others without your work experience, walk in and take the same job you may even have to train them for. We can’t argue which is better. Everyone has their reasons. We can’t assume that it is either qualification that disqualified us from the job. Maybe they just didn’t like us; there was no chemistry. It’s all about fitting in. We all want to fit in, but we don’t always. Personally I’d rather have that job where I fit in and the hiring folks agree.

In some cases, to just to go beyond a certain level in your job you have to have a degree. I have a super smart sister who made straight “A”s and could have named her ticket to any major university. She chose instead to work. She enjoyed her work, but she become stuck at one level and watched several people, not nearly as smart or as good at their job progress when she couldn’t because she didn’t have a degree. At the time she began working, the degree didn’t seem important. For some people, it just doesn’t fit in the plans for a variety of reasons, including financial.

HR does put a value on education. An education is more than specific training for a job or it wouldn’t be called education. But education is general and has to be applied. What it does show is the ability to start something and see it through to the end. certification is a little different since it is more a validation of specific knowledge. I wanted to get at why this debate happens. We don’t realize, especially when it affects us personally, just how many people out there are looking for work. Some are very qualified either in experience or education. Want someone younger, you go with education. Want maturity find the experienced person. With both–you win. At least sometimes.

It’s not a perfect system. I have degrees that by themselves are rather worthless, but combine them with practical experience and use the knowledge (not in a book way) but in a way that makes sense, and you suddenly seem very qualified, but you don’t fit the mold exactly. Not an architect, an engineer, an MBA. The degree doesn’t match the job. Another example, colleges and universities love PhDs and would rather have one over a Masters degree–even if the Masters degree had tons of experience. Colleges and universities are competing for credibility and the more PhDs, the more respect. Logical. Not at all. Well, to them. Choosing kids who can play a sport to play a game makes sense. Choosing friends who can’t play so well doesn’t make sense to anyone but those in on the reason. It’s all a matter of perspective

The years of experience we can’t help, but automatically tells someone how old we are; they aren’t supposed to discriminate at all (and this would be age discrimination), but it is all about getting the employee they want–not necessarily the best qualified. You don’t have to be a different race to be discriminated against. How about not getting it because you didn’t go to a particular school or because you were a blond, or short, or fat. Or not handsome or pretty. Image places a part, like it or not. And when people need to eliminate people from the pool, anything is game unofficially. However, getting the interview is important, but attitude makes a difference. I don’t care how good you are at your job, a bad attitude will make someone want to sacrifice your experience and know how to train someone who’s enthusiastic and wants to do it the way they want them to do it.

I have a few good years left.

Mie Miller

When we expand the scope of this discussion beyond employment opportunities, we might see additional differences between education and experience. I am currently thinking about going back to school next year for an MBA and then possibly a PhD. Having a PhD might actually have a negative impact when one looks for a job. So, why do I want an MBA/PhD? Obviously I am not focused on getting a job. Instead, I want the degrees to enrich my life and to see and experience all of the things that a life has to offer.

My background is a good example. I was born and grew up in Japan, a small island in Pacific Ocean, with the world’s tenth-largest population of over 127 million people who are quite homogeneous; essentially everyone has black straight hair, brown eyes, small framed body, etc… I probably would have done OK if I had stayed in Japan, in terms of having a job, paying bills, etc… But, would that be called living a rich life? I don’t think so. It was my degrees that I earned in the US that expanded my world and enriched my life beyond the small island in Pacific Ocean.

Jack Shaw

@Mie. I agree I never really looked at my degrees as “job getters” mostly because they weren’t in themselves the kinds of degrees (liberal arts mostly) that are linked to a specific profession.

However, I do have a practical side where I try to understand training and development, and even theatre (I also write about that) from a practical point of view.

I consider myself a Cave Man, looking at the training or theatrical world from a primitive perspective even with three Master’s degrees. English, theatre and Social Psychology. Perhaps, the degrees help me understand some things. The psychology degree was actually a stop gap since I was a PhD candidate, but decided not to continue for financial reasons. I joined the Air Force, which found plenty of use for my other “degree” qualifications as a public affairs officer, but lately I have seen so much linkage with anything I do. I’d go back to school in a minute. I discovered I loved teaching so I’m doing that now. Theatre has become a passion again after many years of practically ignoring it.

Honestly, my education sits in the background of my mind and allows me to reflect and communicate what I think in a world of human behaviors.

Daniel Daughtry-Weiss

How about neither? Just because you have experience doing something doesn’t mean you did it well. What shows you can do the job is what you have accomplished. Education is an accomplishment, and so is experience, but I think they are poor indicators. To actually get someone who will perform, it seem you would have to look at job/volunteer accomplishments, enthusiastic recommendations, and fit.

Unfortunately this is not something that can be done well by a computer–or these experience surveys now used in place of KSAs.

Jack Shaw

@Daniel. I agree. Accomplishments are certainly a sign of what someone is capable of doing, recommendations if honest can be, and fit, I think, is the real test of if a person will perform. In that environment, any person who feels they belong and are respected will do something right. It’s all about working with people, and if a person doesn’t fit–the accomplishments are not necessarily seen as accomplishments by those he or she works for and recommendations won’t matter. Fortunately, in my current status only accomplishments matter; the rest just gets me in the door.

Lynne Lapierre

Jack ~ Unfortunately, not all good hard working people have been afforded certificates of accomplishments. Just past real life experiences and how can you prove that? However, I agree with your comment about the perfect FIT. You can only be as successful as the team you put together. Surround yourself with a quality staff and you will be successful (in some cases) regardless of education and/or past experiences. I am not discounting education because there are some professions that definitely require continuing education. My major point is that taking the human element out of the application process is not the best solution. A lot of good hard working individuals that lacked the opportunity for a college education will be overlooked every time.

Jack Shaw

Lynne, I agree 100%. The system takes the human factor out of a process that should be focused on humans. I focus on perspective and that’s what I’m trying to convey. The truth is that education and experience are factors to eliminate people or include them. After that the variables take over, and we go from there, like it or not. What you say happens everyday. Good people are ignored and others make the cut. It isn’t fair. I hope we can do better.