Hiring for Experience Vs. Education

Published: August 28, 2014 Author: Clearpoint Tags: Information Technology, Manager's Corner

It's one of the oldest debates for hiring managers in every industry: When it comes to job candidates, is education or experience more important? Human resource experts are highly divided on the subject, and there's still no definitive answer. Yet this debate can be crucial in the IT industry, where job requirements often evolve as rapidly as the technology that creates the positions.

As an IT manager, should you look for education or experience in a job candidate? Ideally you'd want both, but the choice is not always clear-cut. That's why your answer should depend not on a strict hiring policy that always requires a bachelor's degree, or always turns away candidates with less than two years of experience. Instead, the decision should be flexible and based on both the specific needs of the position you're trying to fill, and the particulars of the candidates you have to work with.

The case for education

For many companies, candidates with a bachelor's or master's degree are highly prized. Graduate degree holders, particularly recent grads, are presumed to be well trained and knowledgeable in their specialty areas--which can be crucial for IT positions, where technologies are changing every day.

Graduates from top schools can also make valuable employees because they often come from environments with strong alumni networks, which can help companies increase their potential talent pool.

The case for experience

The reasons you'd want to hire candidates with experience are fairly straightforward. If the candidate has already performed well in a similar position, it's often safe to assume they'll be an asset to your company. Experience can trump several other factors, including a lack of education if the candidate's relevant experience is extensive.

What's more, experienced candidates have already functioned (presumably well) in a workplace environment, rather than coming to you straight from academia where the expectations for conduct and performance typically vary.

Factors to consider in candidate education vs. experience

Deciding whether education or experience is more valuable should depend on several factors, not simply a general requirement that's been in place for years and is followed as a matter of course. For IT hires, it's important to stay current and allow for flexibility.

Requiring a certain minimal education used to be the rule for tech hiring, but this view is changing. A recent study by HR&A Associates found that 44% of open positions in the New York City tech sector do not require a bachelor's degree. Even tech giants are waiving the degree requirement--Google, for example, no longer requires a bachelor's degree and doesn't even look at test scores or GPAs for candidates, unless they're straight out of college and applying for their first job.

While it shouldn't necessarily be required, education can still be valuable both as a supplement to experience, and as a substitute for experience in highly skilled recent graduates. Here are some factors to consider when weighing these two options:

  • What type of degree is it? In order for an education to be valuable, it should be in a field that's relevant to the position the candidate is applying for--and from a school with a well-regarded reputation.
  • What circumstances surrounded the degree? A candidate who worked full-time while taking part-time evening classes to obtain a degree may be more valuable to your company than one who attended college full-time and missed out on real-world experiences.
  • What kind of experience? Here, you should consider your company versus the companies where the candidate has worked. If you're a large corporation, candidates with extensive experience in startups may not be a good fit, and vice versa.
  • Does the experience demonstrate success? When it comes to experience, in nearly every case, quality is more important than quantity. If you have a candidate with 10 years in the field who stayed at the same level the whole time, and another candidate with only 2 years of experience but can show results and a track record of promotion, those 2 years can be more valuable.

Flexibility and in-depth consideration is the key to weighing education against experience in IT hiring. Consider the particular day-to-day requirements of your position, and the details of your candidates' education and experience, and weigh these factors on their own merits instead of relying on set-in-stone requirements. That way, you won't miss out on top talent.

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