A Look at the Education vs Experience Debate

Sections of this topic

    I understand the education versus training and experience debate, and I agree with the writer who said, “The answer is one that will keep you chasing your tail as you pursue it.”

    So, why have this discussion? Most of us will not deny that the best employees have both education, training and experience, but what about being more realistic, especially in the current job market. Let’s face it, whomever we hire must be able to do the job.

    In my Cave Man perspective here is an answer to the education versus training and experience debate:

    • the person who has the knowledge or experience is important;
    • the one who has both the knowledge and the ability to use it is more important;
    • the one who has knowledge and experience (not necessarily all of either) but can help others figure out the best mix and direct it for the good of all is head of the cave.

    Are there advantages education has over experience. Sure. Experience over education. Absolutely.

    If there ever was a situation that called out for individual assessment this is it. We use to revere knowledge and we generally rewarded those that had it as a ratio to the amount of education, but that was before there were so many college graduates. High school is critical, and a college essential for entry-level success in some areas, and a graduate degree to climb the ladder. In the professional world, you need a professional degree. There are lofty high-paid exceptions these days where performance and the ability to bring in income does not relate to education at all but a particular marketable skill. Super salesman come to mind; some educated, some not, but born with natural ability.

    Life and death matters depend on highly skilled people (highly educated in the case of doctors); however, specialized skills matter.

    It also depends on the degree of need, another business function. Life and death matters depend on highly skilled people (highly educated in the case of doctors); however, specialized skills matter.

    Then, let’s not forget the sports stars, some of whom make a tremendous amount of money may have gotten their start in college sports, were recognized and life changed for awhile until they need the education to fall back on. There are, of course, movie stars that will draw people to the theaters, buy DVDs and make film makers a lot of money. To keep the “geese laying the golden eggs” we must pay them what they are worth.

    But how do we know that when these exceptions aren’t the way it should be? We don’t.

    Not all great athletes become sports stars just as not all actors of note become stars.

    Hence, we must weigh each case carefully. Not all great athletes become sports stars just as not all actors of note become stars. Many smart people don’t go to college and have learned a lot from life’s experiences; and many dumb people make it through college, and haven’t a clue what to do with that education. Both education and experience mean something, but how you use it means more.

    Education means knowledge and experience means you know what to do with that knowledge. So with both, you’re perfect. Maybe. Sort of. Depends. Education specific to the work is best. But that is not to say something close doesn’t have advantages as well. There are gray areas, which is why most job listings say degrees such as or something similar. Note the ambiguity. It’s almost like we won’t know until we see it.

    What is the reality?

    Corporate culture determines who fits best. If education and youth has been its cornerstone of success, you can bet that is where they will look for new employees. Chances are that they also are prepared to train to young employees the way the company likes to do things.

    Another type of company may have a different culture, but it’s also based on different needs. Maybe this company needs people who have a lot of technical knowledge and plant experience, knowledge of business management without totally understanding the working environment may not be as valuable. Having someone with experience, plus education even gained later at a local, no-name college, makes for someone better equipped for the job.

    Obviously there are professions that require the education before you even start, add an internship period to gain the basic experience, then a career may start. For musician or any artist, it helps to know the history and techniques of creating music or art, but it’s not necessary for success if the artist receives the necessary acclaim for performing his or her skill with unique artisty. See me chasing my tail now. We’re back with the exceptions. There are always exceptions.

    Wherever the public seems to be involved as a factor to determine worth, the education doesn’t matter–only results.

    It’s even the same with politicians.

    It’s even the same with politicians. We may be impressed with one’s fancy education, number of degrees, and vast experience–and elect that politician to high office. Let the results show he or she is not doing the job we expected, we forget all the qualifications that brought our vote in the first place.

    It really does depend on the job and the environment.

    A great deal depends on the reviewer’s personal view of the validity of each. In today’s economic strife, we see attorneys vying for jobs with others less educated but qualified by experience. The grumbling is on both sides, but the economy has made it a necessity. Attorneys without jobs are not lawyers arguing cases; they are people educated with law degrees. Does that make them somehow superior to someone who has been doing the same job–let’s say something relative like writing government policy or studying regulations, which you don’t have to have a law degree to do?

    Of course not, except they have the same skill set and practiced it (experience) in law school. They understand how policy and regulations are not far off from law; they are quite similar in fact. In the interview process, you want to know who can do the job you need to do. Here, it would be evaluating policy and regs for validity, writing policy and regs, and ensuring they are all-inclusive. So, here is an example where it is not so much that it is an advanced degree as much as that degree gave the individual the desired training and experience as well. The specific topics can be learned–especially by someone who is good at research and applying that research–another lawyer skill.

    But now let’s turn to managers.

    Can you educate a leader? Can you train one? These are pretty complicated questions themselves.

    According to one of the articles listed here, “A recent Center for Creative Leadership study found that only 10 percent of the knowledge needed to become an effective manager is learned in the classroom.” The statement is little vague by itself, but I would venture a guess that the missing 90 percent had to do with leadership traits and corporate culture–some point specific to the company in question.

    There’s more: “Companies emphasize training courses to build their employees’ leadership skills, yet the study concluded that the best way to acquire such skills is through experience gained by working on challenging assignments.”

    We know many leaders emerge in just those situations, which begs the question: Can you educate a leader? Can you train one? These are pretty complicated questions themselves.

    Suffice it to say that the statements certainly point out the need to weigh individual situations carefully.

    I also suggest that a career path or career ladder be made a part of any hiring process. Some companies tend to hire for a specific job and a fit with the company culture, but they need to be aware an applicant is looking at long-term as well with the company.

    Taking care of that individual by providing a road map to success can’t be a bad idea if the company is honest and consistent about applying it. Motivation to learn what they do not know is half the battle. To answer the question: Do you think on-the-job experience is more important than formal training when it comes to learning how to manage people? Depends again. Chasing that tail.

    Education gave me pieces of paper; experience gave me a headache putting it down effectively in resume.

    For more information on the debate, I’ve included some web sites that may be useful.

    That’s it. I’m getting a bit dizzy from chasing my tail. I know I’ve only touched the surface of the debate. If you take anything away from this discussion, please take this: the terms we see on job descriptions that qualify people is the starting point. Each case is different, and people can surprise with what they know about the world–however they came by that knowledge: education or training and experience. Education gave me pieces of paper; experience gave me a headache putting it down effectively in resume. I couldn’t have succeeded without both, but we all have to start some place.

    For more resources about training, see the Training library.

    These are my words and opinions. Please feel free to disagree and comment, or contact me. If you’re interested in more of my points of view–my Cave Man way of looking at things, I have a website where you can find other items I have written. For more information on my peculiar take on training, check out my best selling The Cave Man Guide To Training and Development, and for a look at a world that truly needs a reality check, see my novel about the near future, Harry’s Reality! Meanwhile, Happy Training.