Education vs Experience: What Do Employers Want More?


Experience or Education: What Do Employers Want More?


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Given that college costs are on the rise and that in 2020 the average student loan debt was $47,000 per person, many people are starting to question the wisdom of pursuing a bachelor’s degree. Does it make sense to spend all that time and money getting your degree when you could be working and gaining work experience?

While there is something to be said for that argument, what really matters when it comes to getting a job is what employers think.

How do they feel about education versus work experience on a resume? Do employers value real-world experience and on-the-job training more than a degree? Or, does that degree mean the difference between getting the job and not?

A Quick Look Back and a Glance Forward

Considering the current COVID-19 pandemic, it’s difficult to know what will happen next. But as unemployment remains high, it’s worth looking back at what happened during the last significant economic slowdown. It’s also worth noting that the pandemic is different than a financial crisis. That said, during the Great Recession, college enrollments grew as job openings shrunk.

For example, enrollment levels during 2010 and 2011 were 33% higher than in 2006. The lack of job opportunities may have driven people to look into leveling up their skill set. And, as new jobs were created and the labor market tightened, enrollments fell. Will the post-pandemic economy lead to the same patterns?

On the other hand, recent surveys seem to indicate that the pandemic may actually decrease rates of college enrollment, at least in the foreseeable future. It’s too soon to know for certain which way the tides will turn, but due to families’ changing financial situations and students’ dissatisfaction with online learning, as many as 22% of college-bound high school seniors say they may rethink their college plans for the coming year.

The silver lining? With less students applying and matriculating, it may be easier for students to get accepted into their dream schools.

How Much Is a College Degree Worth?

It’s hard to deny the fact that, over a lifetime, people with a college degree fare better in the job market than those without one. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that, for example, people with a bachelor’s degree who were at least 25 years old in 2019 had a total unemployment rate of 2.2%, while those with only a high school diploma had a rate of 3.7%. The data also shows that people with a bachelor’s degree had median weekly earnings of $1,248, versus $746 for a high school diploma.

But those statistics alone may not be enough to justify the cost of a four-year degree. For the 2020-2021 academic year, the approximate price for one year at an in-state public college was $26,280 (including tuition, room, board, and other fees), for a total cost of $105,120 for four years. Four years at a private institution is approximately $219,520.

However, data from the Social Security Administration (SSA) demonstrates that investing in a four-year degree pays off over a lifetime. For example, men with a bachelor’s degree earn approximately $900,000 more in their lifetimes than men with only a high school diploma. Women earn approximately $630,000 more when they have their bachelor’s degree.

And, the higher the degree, the higher the possible earnings. Men with graduate degrees earn approximately $1.5 million more over their careers than men with high school diplomas, and women earn $1.1 million more.

If that’s not enough evidence that a degree is important in the job market, consider also that employers are willing to pay a starting salary that’s between 11% and 30% higher for people with a bachelor’s degree.

Based strictly on salary data, it would seem that the time and money invested in earning a college degree pays off over the course of a lifetime.

Do Employers Want College Degrees?

According to a 2017 Harvard Business School study, between 2007 and 2010, job postings listing at least a bachelor’s degree as a condition of employment rose by 10%.

The same study also found that in nine out of ten job postings that requested a bachelor’s degree, the posting did not contain different duties or added responsibilities than postings with the same title that didn’t require a bachelor’s degree.

Does Having a Degree Make a Difference?

Why, then, are employers requesting applicants have a bachelor’s degree when, previously, they did not require it for the same position? And, why require a bachelor’s degree when the job’s duties and responsibilities are the same no matter how much education an employee has?

The study found that employers believe that applicants with a college degree are more “job-ready” than those without a degree. Specifically, employers feel that candidates with degrees possess more hard and soft skills than non-degreed candidates. While the range of “hard” skills varied by field, the desired soft skills were generally the same across the board (including verbal communication skills and the ability to mentor other staff).

However, at the same time, employers also admit that possessing a college degree does not guarantee that a candidate will be any better at the job than someone without a degree. For example, employers feel that productivity levels are no different between degreed and non-degreed employees, and that retention rates remain the same between workers with and without degrees.

Even though employers note that having a degree doesn’t guarantee a candidate will be a “better” employee, they still require that applicants have their degree. This is in spite of the fact that 63% of employers say that the degree requirements make it harder to fill positions, which may be because nearly two-thirds of the U.S. workforce does not have a bachelor’s degree.

Next Steps for Jobs That Require a Degree

Job descriptions often state that applicants should have a degree, which can be frustrating for job seekers who know they could be successful in the role even though they lack this credential.

Fortunately, you can still apply to jobs that say they require a “bachelor’s degree” or “college degree” when you don’t have one. If you’re confident you can do the job based solely on your experience and skills, go ahead and apply! Here’s how to handle this in your application materials.

On your resume, in the Education section, add a line such as:

In your cover letter, focusing on the positive and explaining how you meet many of the other requirements can help you get your foot in the door—particularly if you have relevant experience.

What About Experience Instead of a Degree?

Even though many employers require bachelor’s degrees, the fact is that sometimes the skills needed for a job aren’t taught at a bachelor’s degree level. For some jobs, proving you can do the job through your experience is enough to get you the job without a degree.

Experience Matters

While employers say they prefer applicants with bachelor’s degrees, there are some cases where experience beats a degree. The Harvard Business School study found that 37% of employers rank experience as the most important qualification in an applicant, not educational attainment.

When the job is hard to fill, employers are more likely to overlook the lack of a degree when candidates have sufficient experience in lieu of the “right” education. And in large organizations (those with more than 10,000 employees), experience is more important than a degree 44% of the time.

Potential Is Important

However, it’s not just experience that employers say they value. A 2019 study found that 45% of recruiters and hiring managers say that a candidate’s potential is the most important aspect of their application.

But potential isn’t just the likelihood that a candidate will perform their job duties adequately (or even go above and beyond). Employers define potential as someone’s ability to grow into and beyond the job. They want people who will solve problems for the company and will, in the long run, bring value to their role.

If experience and potential are what employers say is most important in a candidate, why then do employers still ask for and require degrees?

According to some human resource specialists and recruiters, employers ask for a degree because it’s a shortcut to finding talent. Instead of taking the time to review and individually assess each candidate’s experience and potential, it’s easier to enable “self-screening” during the application process by requiring a bachelor’s degree.

What to Do When You Don’t Match All the Requirements

Interestingly, studies have found that many job seekers, especially women, hold themselves back from applying if they don’t match the vast majority of the job requirements. According to LinkedIn, while both genders browse jobs similarly, they apply for roles differently. Women often feel they need to meet 100% of the criteria for a job, while men usually apply if they meet about 60%.

As a result, women are 16% less likely than men to apply to a job after viewing it and, on the whole, apply to 20% fewer jobs than men. But, despite this, women are 16% more likely than men to get hired after applying for a job!

Rather than holding out for those 100% matches, if your qualifications match 60-70% of what’s listed in the job description, consider applying. Remember, a job description is simply a wishlist from an employer, and they’ll most likely not wind up hiring someone with all (or even most) of the qualifications.

How to Get Education and Experience

The reality, though, is that not everyone can afford a four-year college, let alone pursue graduate education. And, of course, it can be hard to get experience without a degree, and without a degree, it may be tough to get experience. Fortunately, there are alternatives to a traditional degree program that can help you get the education and experience you need.

Community College

Some employers accept two-year degrees from a community college if an applicant can demonstrate they have some of the desired experience.

Unlike four-year degrees, these programs tend to focus on industry-specific skills from the get-go, and don’t require students to complete general education requirements. This means that you can get to the “good stuff” faster than at a four-year institution. You may still need to complete unpaid internships to gain additional experience, but you won’t have to spend nearly as much time (or money) on your education in a two-year program. And, when you complete community college, you’ll have an associate’s degree. Several states have programs in place to make community colleges more affordable.

Trade School

Trade schools train students for a specific career. Using a combination of classroom and hands-on training, you’ll gain experience and technical skills in a specific occupation. Like community college, you can complete the program in approximately two years. The difference, though, is that you will not have a degree. But you will have a diploma or certificate that proves you successfully completed the program.

Apprenticeships

An apprenticeship is similar to trade school, only with less school and more on the job learning (and earning!). Employers agree to take on people willing to learn a job or trade, then pay them while they learn the job.

Most apprenticeships require a high school diploma to enter. Not every career field offers an apprenticeship, but in certain trades, an apprenticeship can fill in the gap between not having a degree and not having the required experience. At the end of the apprenticeship, you’ll have a nationally-recognized credential that you can use to find employment elsewhere.

Education vs Experience: Which Matters Most?

The truth is, education and experience are equally as important to employers. If you lack one or the other, you have a lot of options—you can decide to return to school to get a degree, or you can pursue a trade that doesn’t require as much formal education, but will give you some valuable experience. And if you’re already working full-time, a part-time internship or side hustle can give you just the experience you need to change careers.

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