Recruitment | Executive Search

When does your experience start tipping the scales in place of paper qualifications?

It’s often that you hear people upset by an exam result or by missing the grade at University or even later into adult life feeling inadequate about qualifications on paper and not experience in hand. It’s a tough one as a Recruiter as often our “wish list” from clients, when briefing us on their requirements, can be that qualifications are a deal breaker; sometimes with no justification as to why.

I mean, it’s understandable if you are applying to be a brain surgeon and you failed biology at school or you want to be a pilot but you have a visual impairment, but what if your skills and experience not only make up for qualifications, but what if I told you that your experience is worth its weight in gold, and then some? That you can’t buy talent, tenacity or the ability to survive in the face of adversity; would you believe me?

Trust me, I didn’t believe ‘me’ when I graduated from a top European University from arguably the best school of its kind in my field, with a ‘Desmond Tutu’ Joint Honours Degree (That’s a Second Class, Lower Second or 2:2 [Tutu] in real terms, and is very middle of road!) For someone who had always academically been an achiever, and boastful with it, it didn’t just bring me down a peg or two; it also made me more driven to succeed in the big bad world of work and appreciate that a piece of paper could make or break me! No more coasting along for me, no siree!

Now let me put it into context for you; for the first few years thereafter I felt like a bit of a failure and dreadfully sorry that I wouldn’t be able to apply for the same work as my peers who graduated with a 2:1 or some even with a coveted 1st Class honours. Yes, I may well have even got the hump and felt like I was secretly competing with them for higher salaried graduate roles and material possessions to prove my success was on par with them. But, as they say, this too shall pass. And it did. I didn’t let my Degree classification define me, or my future. At the end of the day, it is just a piece of paper I was worrying myself over, I told myself – only half believing it to be true.

Then fast forward a few more years and the tipping point came, after hard grafting, some fortune, some knock backs and whole lot of life learning; no one asked about my Honours Degree or what Class I achieved. In fact, no one even asked or seemed bothered about what I studied and how I had applied it in the outside world; interviewers and potential new bosses were more interested in “what can you do for me?” and “what makes you the best person for the job?” I answered these questions with relative ease; and not because I had listened to a Lecturer or written an exam, or collected and framed my degree certificate. I answered them because I could do the job, and there was assurance from inside me that I knew I could.

So to bring me back to back to the point of this piece; there comes a time when hard work beats talent, when talent doesn’t work hard. (Yeah, yeah, I know it’s overused; but it is so for a reason!) I often speak to candidates who have an MBA and their resounding answer to any question is “I have an MBA” irrelevant of what is asked. Let me tell you, I hardly ever place them – and not because we don’t work at a senior level, we do – but because they are using their qualifications to define who they are and what they think it means they can do and not what gives them the competitive edge. There is a difference, and it seems to be a difference only those without the framed certificates seem to wholly appreciate. (readers, sorry for the generalisation, but I would say a decade in Recruitment has allowed me the opportunity of a well-researched opinion on this topic)

Some of the most followed social media accounts, on the business networking site LinkedIn, are of self-made business men and women, who don’t have any paper qualifications but have worked hard and have daily belief in what they can do, and sometimes even what they can’t do! Just take a look at Alan Sugar or Richard Branson, or even closer to home if you’re a South African, Elon Musk – he wasn’t quite rag to riches but, wow, he really is a self-made man; I mean he taught himself computer programming before he hit puberty! On a personal note, some of the best people I have come into contact with, and have had the privilege to work with (and look-up to), haven’t got anything on paper either. It’s not rocket science; it’s called hard work, self-belief and passion to succeed; which doesn’t cost a penny but is priceless when found; or when someone else finds it and believes in you.
Whether you’re a career seeker reading this, a learner with a hard journey ahead or a business owner seeking to grow your business with good people; look beyond what you can learn in a classroom and think about what benefit work and life experience can add value and where; life isn’t a tick box, so your working life shouldn’t be either.

That being said, I don’t want to discourage those on the journey through academia; but think about your peers who may not have qualifications that you can learn a thing or two from; or how about this ground-breaking idea(!)? You could skill and knowledge share! I know if I could go back and tell my 22 year old self to listen to this single piece of advice, I would.

Qualifications versus experience

And so to bring this to a close, and to answer my own question of when does experience tip the balance; I say, when you realise your worth and not the affirmation of an institution, a boss who didn’t see your value or your own critical self. Life is about a journey, and sometimes that journey doesn’t start with a smooth ride, indeed you might even miss the road to further ‘education’ but there is nothing like getting out into the ‘real world’ to affirm that you can’t always learn everything from even the best of teachers or the most prestigious of schools – ‘education’ isn’t about a piece of paper, it’s about teaching, learning, listening and engaging. One thing is for certain, you can’t rewrite your past, whether that’s studying more to pass a test or choosing to leave school and go straight into work, but if you’re able to see beyond what is behind you, you have the absolute ability and power to change what is ahead of you.

Work hard, follow your heart, have patience, treat nothing as a failure, and above all, BELIEVE.