Education or Experience: Which Is More Valuable?

For years, business managers, academics, and seasoned professionals have debated the value of education versus experience in the technical workforce. Is it better to hire recent university graduates, knowledgeable in the latest technology, to bring a fresh perspective? Or is it better to hire experienced professionals, wise of industry pitfalls and perils, to maintain best practices? Unfortunately, many fall into the trap of creating a false dichotomy and assume that only one choice is correct. Recent graduates tend to see education as most valuable, seeking justification for the time and expense of their university investment. Alternatively, seasoned professionals see experience as most valuable, seeking justification for the years they’ve spent working within the industry. Shrewd business managers, however, know that value is defined by something completely different — neither education nor experience. This article will consider what is truly valuable and will suggest ways that both inexperienced graduates and experienced professionals can express their value to potential employers.A university professor, one with years of both industry and academic experience, once explained, “Education is only an accelerator of experience, not a substitute.” Many recent graduates make a fundamental mistake when attempting to enter the technical workforce, and assume that their newly-acquired knowledge entitles them to gainful employment. Unfortunately, societal viewpoints and sly university marketing have exaggerated the value of a university education and set up a expectation that a degree is a guaranteed key to success. The reality, however, is that employment is traditionally gauged by an employee’s value. Education is just one of several factors that define that value.Much like recent graduates, highly-experienced professionals may also overestimate their value to potential employers. Experienced professionals, especially those who have worked in a niche industry for a long period of time, may find themselves in a position of technical seniority that results in intellectual complacency. Those individuals may be rarely questioned or challenged, so they assume their technical expertise is adequate for their field. However, when those individuals must find other work outside of their microcosm, they find that their expertise is actually quite limited. As a consequence, they may find it difficult for potential employers to fully appreciate their years of experience.

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A reality of business is that nearly all decisions are based on their impact to the bottom line. Hiring practices are no exception. Businesses seek employees that can deliver value to their customers and consequently improve or sustain profitability. Most businesses are not solely interested in a job candidate’s aptitude for solving differential equations and writing technical papers. They aren’t necessarily interested in a job candidate’s 30 year experience in the vacuum tube industry, either. What businesses want to see is an ability to provide solutions to real problems — their problems and their customers’ problems. The solutions may require academic credentials, industry experience, or a combination of the two. But in any case, those solutions are what makes an employee valuable.This raises the question, however, of what value actually is. Value is difficult to define because it is a subjective measure and varies depending on the industry and product. From a customer perspective, value is generally described as the relationship between the cost and the quality of a product. A lower cost or a higher quality will tend to improve the value of a product. Alternatively, a higher cost or lower quality will decrease the value.From an employer’s perspective, the value of the end product and the value of the employee are intimately linked. The employee affects the cost and quality of the product, based on their wage and their contributions, respectively. The more quality the employee contributes to the end product, or the lower their wage, the more valuable that employee becomes. Based on this definition, one can see that maximizing employee value is a complex balancing act. A recent graduate may command a lower wage, but may not have the experience necessary to fully contribute to the end product’s quality. An experienced professional, alternatively, may provide more quality to the end product, but may increase costs with a high salary. In either case, it is important for both recent graduates and experienced professionals to demonstrate their value by focusing on their potential contributions to the end product.So how does one demonstrate value to a potential employer? First, if there is a specific job posting, consider the basic requirements that are listed. Be sure to address those requirements because they are typically used as the primary filter to screen out unqualified applicants. Unfortunately, this is where many applicants stop tailoring their job applications, even though almost every other applicant will be tailoring their job applications in the same way. The result is that all of the applications look alike. Keep in mind that hiring managers are not just looking for an employee that meets the basic requirements. They are looking for someone to provide solutions to their problems. So to demonstrate value to a potential employer, one must be able to highlight the right combination of education, skills, and experiences that will best solve the business’s problems.Next, consider the business’s specific industry, along with its products and services, and try to identify what is valuable to the customer base. Consider price, quality, features, and aesthetics. Then highlight the specific academic achievements, skills, and experiences that can enhance those most-valued characteristics and solve any outstanding problems. It is important to look beyond the skills referenced in the job posting and try to anticipate any needs and requirements that the hiring manager may have omitted (intentionally or unintentionally). Addressing those implicit needs and requirements will provide a competitive edge over other applicants and demonstrate a higher value to the potential employer.Of course, recent graduates and seasoned professionals will have vastly different backgrounds, and by necessity will express their value differently. Recent graduates will have little to no professional experience, so they will have a much more difficult time demonstrating practical knowledge. They should avoid generalizing their educational background and should focus on highlighting specific relevant courses that will provide value by solving problems for the employer. Depending on the industry, knowledge of specific technologies (wavelet compression, error correcting codes, wireless protocols) may provide a competitive advantage. Recent graduates should also highlight any internships, projects, and experiences that will illustrate an ability to apply theory to real-world problems. Lab work doesn’t typically count unless it is extensive and practical. However, experience with specialized instruments (network analyzers, communication test sets) is good to note. Also note any hobbies that might be applicable to the industry (website development, private pilot). These provide a deeper understanding of customer needs and demands.

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Seasoned professionals may have extensive industry experience, but may also be lacking knowledge of the latest theories. Highly-experienced professionals may also have difficulty proving their adaptability to new concepts and technologies. For this reason, these individuals should de-emphasize their formal academic credentials and instead focus on their experiences that will prove their adaptability and relevance. Draw specific attention to management and problem-solving experiences. Highlight any product development and marketing experiences. Also include system engineering and cross-discipline knowledge. These traits all demonstrate a broad, universally-adaptable understanding of both business and industry issues. Experienced professionals should also list professional courses, seminars, and organizational associations. These will demonstrate a willingness to learn new concepts and stay current on technological trends. As with recent graduates, seasoned professionals should also include any applicable hobbies that will provide insight into customer demands.Regardless of academic background or level of experience, every job seeker must consider the role of value in the hiring process. Recognize the fact that businesses find value in neither education nor experience. Businesses find value in solutions. The jobs go to those with the right combination of education and experience to deliver those solutions.