My Personal Musings: Education or Experience?

Justin Byrne

Information Search

​​As the owner of a successful, London-based recruitment company, it might not surprise you to hear that I’ve made a few hires over the past 19 years.

And as the owner of a successful, London-based recruitment company who is currently growing, it’s also no wonder that questions like the one above are front-and-centre in my mind at the moment; it truly is an age-old debate, and one which I don’t believe there will ever be a definitive answer for.

Should I hire graduates fresh out of university and make them my own, or look for those with experience to bring with them?

Here at Certus we’ve made successes of the weirdest to the most wonderful backgrounds; equally – cards on the table – we’ve had some of the most promising simply not work as well as we’d hoped. As a business leader, I’m very much a believer in taking a chance on someone who impresses at interview and demonstrates the right drive (assuming it makes sense to do so*). Over the years I can honestly say we’ve hired a real mix of the two – that is, grads without experience but with great educational backgrounds, and individuals who perhaps didn’t go down the academic route but honed their skills in the workplace.

Here are my honest, open thoughts about the pros of each – and remember that they’re my opinions only. I’d love to hear if you agree.

Education: they know how to learn

They might not know how to do the job yet but, I’ve certainly found, in hiring someone with little-to-no work experience but a stellar education in hand, you’ll find yourself with someone who knows how to pick things up quickly.

Classroom learning can definitely transfer to the working world; university teaches strong research skills and the ability to listen, understand and then implement information. Sometimes it’s not about whether someone has the capacity to learn, but if they know how to – education wins on this point, in my books (no pun intended).

Experience: they have the basics down

When you hire someone who’s been working – whether in an office, as a personal trainer or even in retail – they have some fantastic skills already upon which to build. Those with working experience already possess the ability to communicate in a workplace setting – in a professional manner – and have more of an understanding of ‘business language’, shall we say.

Their experience means they’re less likely to need hand-holding from the off, and could prove them to be an asset to your business more quickly than someone who’s had no ‘real world’ experience (yet). A fast start is a good start.

Education: they’re used to reaching for targets

If you’ve been to uni yourself or ever hired at a graduate level, you’ll know the pressure placed on students to achieve; just get this many more marks and you’ll up your percentage by X, or complete this extra credit to bump up your grade to Y. In the competitive world of education, students are constantly working towards a goal – which is incredibly valuable in the corporate world.

Throughout their education, students are taught the concept of work for reward – which in turn teaches them how to properly manage time and how they operate best. How hard did I work to get to this point? How much more could I achieve if I worked even harder?

And who wouldn’t want to hire someone with this exact mindset?

Experience: they just know what it means to work

Simply put? Hire someone who’s already had a job, and they’ll understand what it means to get up and get their ass to work, whatever the weather.

I am by no means saying that attaining a degree is easy, nor am I suggesting that those who choose to continue their education rather than join the world of work are lazy; it’s just a different way of life, a different scale. Hiring experience over education means that this person understands: I have a responsibility to this company. I have a responsibility to do this job, come hell or high water, on their time and not my own.

It’s just different.

Of course, there’s so much more to it than what’s on a CV, and every single person is different regardless – refer to my earlier comment about who turns up for the interview and pulls it off, where others just don’t. Hiring for experience over education or vice versa isn’t a science – it’s about finding the right person for your business, someone who will come to embody your values and take your business’ goals as their own.

So, tell me – what do you look for? Is there a definitive answer to the education vs experience debate? What are your personal experiences?

*This obviously only applies if no specialised skills are needed – but then again, training…?