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Education versus Experience

A new study finds that while many employees still value their education, they believe specialized training is often more beneficial than a degree in the workplace. But are employers also beginning to put more stock in real-world experience than academic credentials?

Tuesday, July 29, 2014
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It’s an age-old question: Do employees learn more in the classroom or on the job?

A combination of the two is probably the right answer. But a new survey finds that, while getting an advanced degree is certainly still advantageous, many employees also feel their academic credentials are less critical to their professional development. Experts suggest a growing number of employers have begun to prize job candidates’ practical experience and capacity for learning as much as – if not more than -- their educational backgrounds.

Glassdoor’s U.S. Q2 2014 Employment Confidence Survey recently polled 2,059 adults age 18 and older, of whom 996 were employed on either a full-time or part-time basis. In the survey, 82 percent of U.S. college graduates said their level of education has been an asset to their careers. While their sheepskins have come in handy, 72 percent believe specialized training to acquire specific skills is more valuable than a degree in the workplace.

In terms of what’s most important to career advancement and bigger salaries, 63 percent of respondents said learning new skills or receiving special training was most vital. Forty-five percent noted that receiving a bachelor’s or graduate degree was most important, with 38 percent saying transitioning careers or looking for a new job or company was most critical to moving forward and earning more money. Thirty-four percent said the same about networking with professionals.  

In addition, three out of four respondents said they believe their employers value work experience and related skills more than education when evaluating job candidates, with 48 percent saying their specific degrees aren’t especially relevant to the jobs they do today.

Nevertheless, 56 percent of those polled also said a higher level of education would correspond to them being more successful in their careers.

So education is certainly still important, but are employers still putting a premium on degrees when they evaluate job candidates?

Rusty Rueff, career and workplace expert at Glassdoor, says no.

"We see [organizations] placing less emphasis on the academic credentials, and working harder to better identify the skills and experience that are needed within the company," says Rueff.

To help workers develop such skills, organizations aren’t necessarily sending them back to school.   

"Say a company goes out and hires someone who just got his or her college degree, and [the new employee] is not totally ready," says Rueff.

"So the company sends [the new employee] off for training, which costs money. Or, they train them in-house, which costs money. Or they send him or her to take some classes. That costs money. After a while, smart business people say, 'I’m paying for things I have no control over. So I better get smart about what I need to do."

For example, an employee with a bachelor’s degree in finance has designs on one day becoming the organization’s chief financial officer, he says.

"You may not need [that employee] to go back and get an MBA. You may need him or her to better understand the principles of accounting, and to be great at merger and acquisition work. So you may [instead] want to send [him or her] to finance boot camp, or to a seminar.

"You may need him or her to be better at financial planning and analysis," continues Rueff. "So you have the employee shadow one of the company’s financial leaders for six months. And you’re going to offer a lot of internal learning opportunities, and give the employee something to work toward. And you tell the employee, when you get all these skills, we can put them all together, and you could be the company’s CFO. HR leaders can help [employees] do that."

In some cases, employees may indeed learn more from experience than education, says Dave Ulrich, professor of business at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich.

For instance, he says, "a thoughtful and aggressive entrepreneur who [has created] a company may have learned more about business than by earning a university degree in business."

In addition, the gap between academic insight and work requirements has increased, says Ulrich.

"Textbooks report theories that faculty create through research, which is often not related to real-world problems," he says. "Students ultimately need to learn how to learn and to appreciate the process of inquiry."

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The question of how much degrees earned in the classroom still matter depends partly on the specific role and industry, says Renee Smith, a San Francisco-based senior consultant in Towers Watson’s talent and rewards practice.

"I have some clients in financial services, for example, that used to bring in MBAs at a premium, hiring them for their education and experiences," says Smith. "Today, these same clients would rather bring in undergrads and grow their technical skills through training, mentorship and experiential opportunities."

On the other hand, there are fields -- such as the oil and gas industry, for instance -- where the lack of a college degree may preclude one from advancing beyond a particular level, she says.

"In these cases, having the right college education in an engineering or geoscience field -- in addition to the technical skills learned on the job -- is critical at certain levels."

Employers must find the right balance when weighing education versus experience, and "the emphasis will depend on the role being addressed," says Smith.

HR leaders "almost have to become architects of the skills and experience the company needs, and translate those skills and experience down into what [employees] need to get them, and then help them map their way toward them," adds Rueff, citing the aforementioned would-be CFO as an example.

Ultimately, while employers and HR may be relying more on internal learning opportunities to help employees map their advancement within the organization, college degrees are still most employees’ entry to the professional world, and aren’t in danger of slipping into irrelevance anytime soon, says Rueff.

"Until we see a Fortune 50 company come out and say, 'This is 2014, we will no longer make the college degree a go or no-go requirement inside of our company,’ that college degree -- whether it’s criminal justice, physics, business or Shakespearean history -- will be what gets you through the door."

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