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Education Vs. Experience: What Employers Want

Ana-Marcela Lopez / Abound: Finish College »

Adults throughout the country regularly weigh their options when they’re planning to make an important career move. Young people wonder whether hiring managers will be more impressed by a college degree or a wealth of workplace knowledge gained through experience. Non-traditional students and/or those weighing the pros and cons of finishing college might be looking for faster ways to move up in the world.

The education-versus-experience debate has been around for ages and, speaking generally, there’s not a concrete answer on which is better.

That said, let’s look into the differences between education and work experience. We’ll explore the benefits and downsides of each as well as what you should consider when making this important choice for your future.

Practical Differences Between Education and Experience

It’s difficult to outline the key differences between education and work experience. Both routes of learning can be dynamic when it comes to the details and processes involved in each. With that in mind, let’s examine some basic info about each route.


When most people think about education, sitting in classrooms, listening to lectures, and completing written assignments come to mind. However, the path to completing a person’s education can be more diverse than that. Many activities that take place throughout specific learning programs can overlap with activities performed in the workplace. 

Similarly, the activities covered in the field or office can also resemble classroom learning. Plenty of onboarding and training modules involve reading, completing lessons, and answering questions based on the information covered. So the difference between learning on the job and learning in a classroom is not always clear cut.


Still, there are practical differences between obtaining a certificate at a university and performing work-related tasks through hands-on learning. College coursework and on-the-job training can go hand-in-hand in some situations, but the key differences between the two are quite simple. Education refers to the institutional instruction needed for an individual to be considered qualified to perform specific working roles. Experience refers to an individual’s active involvement in performing and perfecting work-related tasks over time.“Consider attending a university that works to weave these two together,” says Megan Boone, Director of the Center for Career Development and Experiential Education at Morehead State University. “Morehead State University offers a unique program called Level UP: Experience Your Future that builds hands-on experiences of internships, service learning, undergraduate research or education abroad into required classes in a student’s major.”

Benefits of Work Experience

Relevant work experience makes a positive impression on employers in a number of ways. A candidate can have significant experience working in their chosen field or be relatively new to the role they’re applying for. In any case, relevant experience shows hiring managers that the candidate has a basic understanding of how daily work operations are performed.

Current work experience is especially favorable in a field that’s evolving and adopting new technologies.

Take, for example, a manufacturing position that does not need a college degree to perform. One candidate may have a decade-old degree and no work experience in the field. Another candidate may have no degree but possesses five years of current experience. The experience the second candidate has will likely be more valuable to employers than the outdated degree. Experience shows that the candidate has taken the time to develop skills and grow along with the industry.

The Downside of Experience

  • Most industries are advancing in some way. Work experience might help a candidate get their foot in the door, but not having a degree may impede the employee when it comes to advancing at work.
  • Workplace experience is not always sufficient when trying to display proof of a candidate’s skill or efficiency. After all, an individual can also compile years of experience while performing subpar work.

Benefits of Education/Degree

One of the biggest benefits of earning a degree can be the stability it affords those who completed an advanced program. Often, a college degree or certificate assists candidates in getting hired for the position they apply for. It’s also more likely to get hired with a better pay than you would without a degree.

Many employers want to hire applicants who have relevant college degrees. A degree conveys that the applicant is dedicated to pursuing knowledge and understands the field from an educational perspective. It also shows that they met and achieved certain standards set by their school’s curriculum.

Further, some positions require college degrees. Take the medical field, for example. A candidate applying for a physician’s position must have the credentials required by law to practice medicine. Regardless of clinical experience, no reputable medical facility would hire them without the proper education and licensure.

The Downside of Education

  • A degree might not adequately display a candidate’s skill level. Though having a degree displays an academic understanding of a working role, it does not always translate to real-world job skills.
  • College or university degrees can be expensive and time-consuming for an adult learner to obtain. Some positions in a given field don’t require a degree. When that’s the case, it becomes easy for the candidate to feel that college isn’t necessary. They may feel overwhelmed by the thought of juggling the demands and rising costs of secondary education.

Can One Replace the Other?

In some cases, a degree can trump work-related experience while, in others, experience can be more valuable than a degree. Several variables factor into the value of both education and work experience. As such, it’s difficult to make a general declaration that one is more important than the other.

Megan Boone from Morehead State University continues: “It is also very important to learn to articulate your skills and accomplishments to a potential employer regardless of whether you’ve gained those in the classroom or in the field. You want to balance examples from cutting-edge assignments that you may be doing in the classroom with work experience.”

To make an informed decision about which pathway to take, think about the details surrounding the field and position in question.

  1. Does this position require a college degree?
  2. Is the position entry-level or advanced?
  3. What is the compensation offered?
  4. Do the majority of professionals in this role rely on degrees or experience?
  5. Is the field constantly evolving?
  6. What’s the hiring competition like?
  7. Are you able to display your skill level without a college degree?

Employers in different industries place value on work experience and education in vastly different ways. Considering the position you’re applying for, the industry in which the company operates, and the unique skills you can bring to the workplace are all essential components in determining which route an individual should take when pursuing a career.

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