Education or Work Experience: What’s More Important?

Posted November 8, 2019, by Jenny Sakr

Education Vs Experience. Who will come out on top? This is a question that is often asked, no matter what stage of your career you might be at. Whether you have just finished school and are looking at launching your career, or have been in your industry for the past 10 years and are looking for a change of direction, you might be wondering: study or work experience, which one is going to get you ahead?

The answer, of course, depends on many different factors, and we are going to walk you through them all to give you a better understanding in relation to your specific situation. *Spoiler alert* I will tell you now, there really is no clear answer. Read ahead to get more clarity on what might work for y.o.u.

Different types of work experience

When we refer to work experience, it is important to define exactly what it means. As a young university graduate or a high school leaver, work experience is your first foot in the door in your chosen industry, while for a seasoned worker, it is a way to side-step your career in a completely different direction. Work experience can come in a variety of different forms:

  • Paid work experience while studying in the field
  • Unpaid work experience while studying in the field (these are commonly also referred to as internships and can be paid or unpaid)
  • An entry-level job in the industry that provides you with relevant experience

So the question is: should you be focusing on getting that paid work experience to get your foot in the door, or is the qualification more important? Or should you be doing both and enter into the juggling act?

What do employers value more?

It’s no secret that when it comes to getting a job in your chosen field, no matter what that may be, you will be dealing with a lot of competition. You want to make sure you stand out and get noticed.

Employers are looking for a mix of both education and experience. But the question here is, which one do they value more? According to a recent survey by recruitment specialists Universum, 58% of leading employers value work experience more than grades or even the university that was attended.

But does this suggest you should go off and try and get a job without a degree behind you? This really does depend on what industry you are working in and what the job competition is like. 

What if I have already been working and want to change industries?

For those who are already in the workplace, things are a little bit different. While you may not have been working in the relevant field to the career change you are looking to make, all your past experience is still relevant. 

You are able to demonstrate that you have worked for employers before, that you are reliable, hard-working and more. You then can highlight how your skills you could transfer into a new position.

It’s important to recognise, that as an employee, you are an investment to any company who hires you. If they are serious about their investments, they will put the time, money and effort into upskilling and training you for the job. You just need to prove you are the right fit for the job, and this is often easier if you have a working career behind you. 

In this way, you will be able to study while working, so you have the opportunity to gain a new degree while getting firsthand experience. There have been so many advances in distance learning, and more and more tertiary education providers are moving their courses online, making the balance of work and study easier than ever. 

What will better build your skills?

Of course, it is also important to factor in which one is more likely to build your skills.

It’s one thing to look good on paper, but can you deliver in a job setting?

This is very dependent on the field you are working in, but in general, a degree is a great basis to work off. Think of a degree as the foundation blocks and then your work experience as the building. If you don’t have a foundation for the building, then it’s likely you will only be able to get it so high before it needs support. 

While it may be possible for you to land a job without a degree, there is a suggestion that career progression can be halted. According to Career Develop Association of Australia’s (CDAA) president Wanda Hayes, “In reality a lot of graduates from university end up going into entry-level jobs that aren’t necessarily higher than they would have got without their degree. But we know that once you’re in [some organisations], there is a ceiling that you can pass through if you have a degree, which you can’t pass through if you don’t have a degree.”

Wanda Hayes also shared that those with a degree also generally have a lower rate of unemployment and lower rates of underemployment across their working lives.

What do industries value more?

This is all relevant to your chosen field. There are some industries where you will not be able to get a job without the right qualification, these include:

  • Medicine
  • Law
  • Teaching
  • Accountancy
  • Engineering

And there are some industries where practical experience speaks volumes (often over study):

  • Retail 
  • Trades
  • Photographer
  • Makeup artist

Then, of course, there are the industries that fall somewhere in-between. A certificate, diploma or degree is a great start and it’s even better if this is coupled with work experience:

  • Marketing
  • Editing
  • Hairdresser
  • Nanny
  • Community services

Postgraduate study

Finally, we can’t ignore further study and taking a look at whether this is worth it in your industry. While you may have a Bachelors Degree in your chosen field, what would holding a Masters do for you!

In short, it can’t hurt! The great thing about the age of the internet is that you can carry out studying online, so you can learn while working. If you already have a job, plenty of work experience and still want to move up the ladder, you might want to consider how postgraduate study will set you apart.

You need to weigh up the financial gains you hope to achieve from a more senior role in your industry against the costs involved in completing a postgraduate course. This will make the decision much easier for you.

So where does this leave you?

With a lot to think about! The first thing to do is consider your chosen industry. Is it essential for you to have a degree to land a job? If the answer is yes, then this should be your first focus, the work experience can come next.

If this is a grey area, then consider your personal circumstances:

  • Do you have time to undertake study?
  • Do you have the funds to pay for it?
  • Are you able to work in a different job (such as retail) while you complete the degree?

It is worth talking to others in your industry and asking around for some advice. They will know best about what is valued and how to go about it.

In the end, most employers are looking for well-rounded people. They want a mix of experience, a good attitude and a drive, all backed by a relevant degree. 

Holding a degree is never going to hurt you when it comes to getting a job, if anything it could be that leg up that makes you stand out against others competing for the role. But there does seem to be a big weighting placed on relevant work experience, so if you can manage both, you will find yourself with a great head start.

Jenny Sakr
Jenny Sakr

Jenny found her way with words while interning during uni, since, she's produced articles on it all – from hair and beauty to homewares, travel, career advice and study tips. On a weekend you're most likely to find her lining up for a table at the latest cafe or restaurant.

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