Qualifications or Experience – Which is More Important?

January 12, 2015

With many different combinations of qualifications and experience present in every resume a recruiter may see – how on earth do we choose the best to call for interview? Or decide who was the best person for the job?


Qualifications give evidence of an educational achievement. Some qualifications refer to degrees and their differing levels but you have professional certifications demonstrating more of a subject matter expertise; for example the project management professional (PMP) certification.

Why do we ask or expect certain qualifications?

We need to have confidence that someone has learned how to do something and that they have had a specific standard or level of knowledge shared with them, remembered and that memory confirmed through an assessment – think finals for a degree.

When seeing a qualification, for the recruiter the expectation is that they still remember the content of their course and can repeat it as needed. But  – and this is a big but – most qualifications only reflect knowledge of something and do not show an ability to do something.

There is a level of capability that comes from just demonstrating that you went to school – no matter what subject. The very fact that a job seeker can show time taken to be disciplined and organized, work well with others and demonstrate an ability to perform under pressure – are all good qualities to be considered within the hiring process.

We’re also seeing a significant increase in vocational and practical degree programs that include hands-on applications of the skills, knowledge, or ability learned in class. But it’s still more often a supervised practice rather than solo success in their field.

As a recruiter I look at qualifications in three ways.

  1. The level of qualification – e.g. college course, bachelor degree or postgraduate.
  2. The subject matter – particularly how closely aligned it is to the work area of job.
  3. How recently the program was completed – reflecting how current the information and learning is for the vacancy.

Other things some recruiters consider: Maybe where the study took place, if it was full or part-time, straight after high school or many years into a career – but these are more peripheral considerations for me and I’ve yet to find anyone who uses these as a deciding factor in moving someone from one stage of the recruiting process to the next.


Let’s talk experience. To do this I’m going to ask you to answer a question – my thanks go to Gary Chaplin:

You have been ill for some time and diagnosed with a condition requiring a potential life threatening operation, which of the following would you prefer as your surgeon?

  1. A newly qualified surgeon, less than two years out of school, with an A+ academic record but who has only performed very minor surgery under supervision to date.
  2. A surgeon who qualified 10 years ago with a good academic record and has 10 years of experience in a variety of different surgeries, but has never done this operation before.
  3. A surgeon who qualified 25 years ago, with an ok academic record but 25 years of progressively more challenging surgery experience including 3 years of doing this very same surgery.

Who did you choose?

(I’m guessing number 3.)

Why? Because you want someone “Who knows what they are doing”.

Would you answer the same way if your company needed an aerospace engineer or a surveyor? Would you be more comfortable with less experience?

Recruiter Knowledge is Critical to Understanding Experience

How you think about a candidate’s experience really comes down to the job you want the person to do. It is about matching of your expectation for the job with the applicant.

Editor’s note: This is why, as a recruiter, it’s important that you know what the engineer you’re hiring will actually be doing (Point #1 in “7 Things Engineers want Hiring Managers to Know“). Without it you are ill-prepared to assess their experience. 

For some professions, like the surgeon in our earlier example, a previous successful record of experience should weigh more heavily than qualifications. The importance of experience and its use is very much a job-specific factor, but tends to correlate to seniority of the position.


So which is more important: Qualifications or Experience?

They both are, but experience has more variability and provides greater opportunity for discretion. My recommendation is to look at qualifications and experience in combination and make sure you seek an appropriate mix to fit the role.

Experience can show you have done the job, but too much experience in the job and I question why the person hasn’t progressed.

Qualifications show theoretical ability, but too many qualifications and I question how they have had so much time on their hands or how easy those qualifications were.