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Experience or a degree: which is more important when looking for a job?

March 7, 2019

What is more effective and impressive in a job interview — your university degree, or professional experience? Have you focused on gaining practical skills or just acquiring advanced degrees? What does the job market want — academic knowledge, or hands-on experience? These are questions that many of us want answers to. Let’s take a closer look.

Education has always been seen as one of the most efficient vehicles for economic emancipation, social mobility. Being educated had long meant having greater access to certain levels of employment, salary, responsibility, prestige and social capital. Presumably, the higher the educational attainment, the greater will be the chance to access the just- mentioned opportunities.

Welcome to the hi-tech and knowledge-based economy, where new skills are in demand and the value of the old ones is decreasing fast. The need for professionals who are able to handle complex situations outside the framework of a formal education has increased dramatically in recent years. Talented and motivated employees who are willing to learn new skills and are able quickly to adapt to the changing economy are in high demand.

In 2019, Russia’s biggest recruitment companies, Superjob and HeadHunter, have announced that job advertisements published on their websites will no longer include educational requirements and it has provoked heated discussion.

"The lack of a specialized education will no longer stand between a skilled candidate and his or her dream job,” said Superjob’s representative.

Aleksandr Dzhabarov, director of HeadHunter’s communications department, says that his company is working on coming up with the instruments and methods needed to assess candidates’ skills and experience but not their degree.

This controversial decision doesn’t sit well with experts fr om inside and outside academia.

Here are some factors to consider when it comes to the duel between education and experience.

Hiring for the global economy is skills-based

Skills are becoming more important for professional success, as well as personal and career growth. Many employers are deciding to change their hiring process, and as a result, skills-based hiring has become a thing in many fields.

Does that mean that a higher education is absolutely useless?

On the one hand, employers now favor relevant apprenticeships or experience over university degrees, a survey by Association of Accounting Technicians has found. The survey carried out by this British organization on August 16, 2018, has found that 49 per cent of decision makers prefer to see experience from a relevant apprenticeship or previous position on a candidate’s CV. Just 24 per cent said they would be more likely to take on someone who had a relevant degree qualification, reported The Guardian.

On the other hand, people with a bachelor’s degree earn 84 percent more than those with a high school diploma, according to a report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, said The Washington Post on February 16, 2018.

The UK Government's Graduate Labour Market Survey (GLMS) has found that high skilled employment rates among postgraduates aged 16-64 was 77.8% in 2017, compared to 65.5% among graduates. For those in the 21-30 age bracket, meanwhile, postgraduates are 16.1% more likely to be in a highly skilled job than graduates.

One can’t rule out the necessity of having a degree, but considering the volatile and ever-evolving market, the demand for skills has definitely overtaken basic educational credentials. To stay competitive and attractive to students, universities are evolving, developing new educational programs and courses, cooperating with industry to let the students gain as much relevant experience and practice as possible by their graduation time.

Russian universities have been implementing a pioneering initiative to help students develop a sense of initiative and entrepreneurial skills. In a few years' time, students at all Russian universities will have an opportunity to present a startup that they have launched instead of submitting a traditional master's thesis, the Russian Ministry of Education and Science has announced. While some students at Russia’s leading universities have already successfully used this option, it will become universally available in this country since 2019.

Launching a successful startup requires a thorough knowledge of corporate finance, taxation, accounting and marketing, and also extensive expertise in the area directly relating to the startup idea, experts say. Also, data shows that students who have started their own business in a field that matches their educational qualifications are less likely to change career.

Responding to the challenges of the labor market, universities have been developing academic-corporate project-oriented collaboration, looking for practical solutions to shared challenges, providing companies with highly skilled and experienced manpower.

A degree is still a valuable asset

There are some careers wh ere experience beats education, and vice versa. In sales, for instance, having a track record of money brought into the company will far outweigh any degree. Likewise, vocational fields, such as construction, value experience over education for obvious reasons. Otherwise, in IT or other high-tech field your experience might be far more valuable than your degree.

“In some fields, such as IT, the hiring process is already almost 100% skill-based,” said Dmitri Zemtsov of Far Eastern Federal University, a Russian Academic Excellence Initiative participant. “Companies are looking for a variety of talents, skills and personality traits in candidates rather than a certain degree level,” However, Zemtsov stresses that a degree from a prominent institution is still one the most valuable confirmations of one’s skills and expertise.

In some fields, you may be allowed to substitute experience for a higher education, but certain industries, such as education and healthcare, require academic knowledge.

“If a private clinic searches for a neurologist, it is legally obligated to require a specialized university degree,” said Vladimir Filippov, rector of RUDN University. “There are certain skills and professions that you should not try to learn at home. Forty years ago only 20% of high school graduates applied to universities. Today, this figure is 80%, which means that the demand for highly qualified workers is growing.”

How to boost your resume

So, what to do if you lack education or experience? For university grads, internships offer a great opportunity to get experience and show that you're willing to invest into your career. Likewise, volunteering can give a resume boost: look for positions that give the experience you need, even if it's not in your field.

If your resume lacks in academic 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 universities offer online classes and certificates.

Viktor Koksharov, rector of Ural Federal University, says that universities are responding to the demands of the rapidly changing economy and labor market by developing new educational programs. Companies cooperate with higher educational institutions instead of ignoring a candidate’s degree.

“We at Ural Federal University believe that by graduation day a student should have already made his or her contribution to the development of technology and research,” said Koksharov. “Having such a portfolio significantly increases chances for employment.”

When it comes to experience versus education, there's no clear winner. But one thing is certain: If you're on the hunt for a job, find ways to strengthen what you might be lacking.