The Great Job Market Debate: Education V. Experience

In today’s strained economy, there is an astounding average of twenty applicants for every job.  Much like it’s a buyer’s market in the housing sector right now, so is it a hiring manager’s market.  With so many people looking for work, hiring managers can be choosy about who they bring into an organization.  So, how does a job-seeker make him- or herself stand out from the rest, and what do hiring managers consider essential elements in a potential employee?  Not surprisingly, the answer is clear as mud.

First and foremost, a lot of it depends on the industry you’re talking about.  For example, a hospital would want to hire a surgeon who has a medical degree, specialized training in surgery, and a license.  Likewise, an architect needs to have the appropriate education and certification.  But aside from these and other specialized fields, there are a great many jobs for which a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree is not necessarily integral to the work being performed.  For jobs that fall into this “gray area,” perhaps experience is the trump card.  For example, in seeking a donor development officer or marketing manager, a non-profit organization is likely to require a proven track record of fundraising or a dossier of successfully-executed marketing materials.   Formalized education is less important.

Much of the debate between education and experience in the workplace centers on the value we place on each, both as individuals and as organizations.  Make no mistake about it: both are important, but just how important they are can be highly subjective.  Most folks would agree that the textbook learning that happens in college is not terribly useful in a practical sense.  It can, however, demonstrate one’s ability to think critically, to convey an idea creatively and persuasively, and to successfully manage deadlines and competing responsibilities.  These “soft” qualities are often greater indicators of professional success than the actual coursework involved.  On the flip side of the coin, most of us would also agree that hands-on experiences – whether from a previous job, an internship or a volunteer endeavor – teach us far more about doing a job well and working with others than sitting in a classroom.

Whatever side of the debate you fall on, keeping the following tips in mind will improve your chances of getting hired in a highly competitive job market:

  • Know yourself and know the employer: Concentrate your efforts on applying to organizations and for positions that are a good match with your education and experience.
  • Highlight your assets:  In a resume and cover letter, focus on the things that separate you from the herd, and leave no stone unturned – even a simple volunteer gig can demonstrate qualities that set you apart.
  • Dress to kill: Show up to all job interviews on time and dressed professionally, even for an entry-level position.  Prepare answers to common interview questions ahead of time, so you’re not caught off guard.  Be prepared to highlight your assets and to give examples of past successes and challenges.

When all is said and done, one truth remains: We never stop learning, and we never stop adding experiences to our lives.  Whether or not these things occur in a formalized environment, we can and should apply them to the jobs we do.  The trick is in selling it.

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