Experience Or Education: Which One Lands You The Job?

By Claire Bradley | Updated June 07, 2013 AAA

Take this scenario: Bob and Joe are both applying for the same job. They each interview well, but Bob has 15 years experience and no college degree, and Joe is fresh out of college with no experience. Who gets the job? The answer is: it depends. Here are some factors to consider when it comes to the duel between education and experience.

Career Field
There are some careers where experience trumps education and vice versa. In sales for instance, having a track record of dollars brought into the company will far outweigh any degree. Likewise, in a high-tech field, a recent college degree that consists of studying the latest developments might give you a leg-up over the guy with the experience in your field. Vocational fields like construction will value experience over education for obvious reasons. Your chosen career field will dictate how education and experience stack up against each other.

Reputation
Not all experience or education is created equal. A degree from a top school in your field will open doors simply for its reputation; a degree from a college with a lesser reputation won't help you nearly as much. Did you earn your degree while working full time? That gives you a reputation of being a dedicated hard worker willing to make sacrifices - a reputation that will help you when you sit down to interview for a job.

When it comes to experience, reputation is just as important: simply clocking 40 hours a week for 15 years isn't going to win you any points. How did you add to the company's bottom line? Did you innovate, win awards, bring in new business, promote? Reputation matters when it comes to both education and experience.

Company Policy
Let's say Bob with the 15 years of experience is applying for a job within his company - an internal promotion he's convinced he's qualified for. The sad news for Bob is that the job may still go to Joe, fresh out of college with zero experience. Some companies may allow you to substitute experience for a college education, but others have a tougher policy, requiring a college degree, no substitutions. Bob may be the best candidate, but unless he goes to college, he'll be stuck where he is. Also note that certain industries, like education and healthcare, require education to qualify for necessary certification.

Money, Money, Money
The Department of Labor reports that over the last few decades, employees with a college degree earn roughly 77% more than those with only a high school diploma, making a strong case for a college education. It also reports a lower unemployment rate for those with a college degree: 4.4% for workers with a bachelor's degree or higher, versus 10.8% for those with only a high school diploma.

Does this mean you should sign up at the nearest college? Not so fast - college debt is on the rise, with many college graduates struggling to pay their ballooning student loans. The cost of a one year of tuition at a private college runs over $29,000, with public college setting you back about $8,600, plus opportunity costs. Consider your career field, the college's reputation and your finances carefully before committing.

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

If your resume lacks in education 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 (public) colleges offer online classes and certificates.

The Bottom Line
When it comes to experience versus education, there's no clear winner. If you're on the hunt for a job, find ways to strengthen the part you're missing, and you'll be sure to beat both Bob and Joe.

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