The Endless Debate: Experience vs. Education

January 27, 2015 Diane Cobbold

Many mature professionals with 30+ years of experience will look at the section on their resume headed Education and cringe. While the majority of them have attended numerous professional development training courses, industry conferences, and have obtained related certifications over the years, they still feel inferior when competing with individuals who are often younger and have multiple postgraduate accomplishments. Why is this?

I acknowledge that there are professions such as a doctor where it is critical that a person has achieved specific credentials, but there are many other positions, particularly in the business world, where I believe experience equals education.

For these experienced professionals, the opportunity to attend university often wasn't available and there wasn't the same expectation or requirement from employers as there is today.

But that was then. Today, if you scan current job opportunities you will quickly see how many companies are using the completion of any university program as a minimum prerequisite even for entry-level positions. This expectation has turned many Gen X and Y employees into some of the most highly credentialed working professional of our time. So how does an experienced worker without a university degree compete?

The good news is that while companies are asking for more formal education they still want to balance it with proven work experience. Which means that past contributions and tangible results are valued and will have weight during the interview process. 

Not many companies would be willing to risk putting an inexperienced, young graduate possessing a new Master’s degree into a Director/VP role. Employers want to see how a new graduate applies  their academic learning in an actual working environment. This is where mature, experienced professionals can strike some balance.

In his book "Outliers: The Story of Success", Malcolm Gladwell states that "10,000 hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert."  Many professionals with 30+ years of experience have definitely achieved this. Gladwell goes on to say that  “the right opportunities came along once they were at this expert level.” So, it can be very difficult to achieve the perfect opportunity if extensive mastery experience hasn't been attained.

I would suggest the focus for all employees should be to ensure your continued employability by researching the educational credentials you may require, upgrading your skills where necessary, actively seeking out stretch assignments, and to be ever on the lookout for new opportunities that will expand your overall worth to an organization.

Experienced workers should not make excuses or feel embarrassed for their lack of formal education, because the level of mastery that they have achieved and the breadth of experience they posses will often exceed an employer's overall requirements.

About the Author

Diane Cobbold

Diane Cobbold is a Principal in Lee Hecht Harrison Knightsbridge’s Career Solutions Practice. Diane has over 20 years of experience working with HR teams to develop career solutions that support departing and retained employees to realize their career goals through traditional programs and virtual resources.

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