Let’s Talk: Degree or experience? Deciding what to look for when hiring newcomers

Image Credit: Sebastian Hermann

Job candidates with a tertiary qualification demonstrate they possess intellectual ability, ambition, and discipline, but does this automatically make them the best person for the job?

Relevant industry and life experience, a cultural fit with your team, the desire to learn, and good old-fashioned values are also important traits to look for when recruiting.

So how do you prioritise these attributes and choose the best candidate, every time?

Let’s Talk…

Joe Woodham, Membership Chair, Entrepreneurs’ Organization Melbourne, and Director of Torii Consulting

“Hiring good people can be tricky at the best of times, so making sure you spend time and get it right the first time can save a world of pain, as I have found out many times. These are my top 3 tips that have helped our clients and us:

1. Cultural fit – Hiring someone who is aligned with your company values, beliefs and behaviours. 

2. Team fit – Ensuring someone will work effectively as a part of a team. It’s great to have a diverse team with different experience and backgrounds, so you will be able to collaborate and work well together

3. Skills – Define the job before hiring to ensure you know what skills are needed. Build a skills checklist so you can evaluate potential candidates properly.”

Jay Munro, Head of Career Insights at Indeed.

“It’s common for employers to ask about formal education during the recruitment process, but depending on the industry, employers can place as much value on experience as they do on academic achievement.  

“In recent years, many organisations have begun to relax their formal qualification requirements, acknowledging that when it comes to finding the right person to fill a role, on the job training and lived experience is equally as important.  

“When looking for a new hire, there are a range of skills that employers could consider.  Look for candidates who explain how their experience is relevant to the role they’re applying for and who can thoughtfully demonstrate how they can add value to your company. Have they worked on similar projects before? Do they have experience in the same sector or transferrable skills? Soft skills are also important to evaluate, so keep an eye out for candidates who can demonstrate leadership skills, flexibility, resilience and ability to communicate well.

“Finally, remember that finding a well-rounded candidate who fits into your company culture, shares similar values, and can offer a diverse perspective, may prove to be a better hire than the person who ticks a lot of boxes on paper.”

Matt Beard, Program Director of the Vincent Fairfax Fellowship at Cranlana Centre for Ethical Leadership

“I was recently speaking with a CEO who told me that she no longer looks for technical skills when she’s recruiting. Her reason was simple: skills can be taught quickly and easily, emotional intelligence can’t.

“Hiring newcomers who have glittering CVs, worlds of experience or whose walls are littered with diplomas, on the other hand, means taking a punt on a person’s character and emotional intelligence. To my mind, this isn’t a risk worth taking.

“When we talk to leaders about the kinds of people they want to be and work with, we don’t hear much about what New York Times writer David Brooks calls ‘resume virtues’ like productivity. Instead, we want to know who is curious, empathetic, caring, wise and courageous.

“These traits aren’t guaranteed by either experience or education. They need to be actively sought after, otherwise, you might have a team who are great at what they do, with no mind to whether what they’re doing is actually doing any good.” 

Kjetil Undhjem, ANZ Head of Marketing and Brand Strategy

“In a purpose-led marketing organisation, life experience is everything. Through lived experiences, marketers are able to deeply understand customers and respond with purpose. By building and empowering a diverse and inclusive team of marketers, with rich life experiences, organisations and businesses can better connect with their customers and communities. Core marketing skills are important—but in purpose-driven teams, shared values are imperative.

“In the case of ANZ, our purpose isn’t what we as a company hope to achieve. Rather it’s how we can help people through our products, assisting with financial wellbeing. Understanding this as the real purpose is only possible through lived experiences, understanding the deep-rooted values of our customers.

“It is up to us as marketing professionals to build diverse teams by placing a focus on experience. While skills are important, knowledge can’t always be taught.”

Lyra Mackay, Evangelist, Zoho

“The world of work is evolving rapidly and as it does, the skills that companies seek in new hires are changing. Requiring a formal degree from applicants is becoming a restricting view – and in many cases and industries, it isn’t always the best or most accessible option for young Australians. 

“With the rise of the internet, there are countless ways people can develop in-demand skills through self-taught streams too. These individuals are no less talented or viable for a role if their skills are self-taught rather than from a degree. Culture, enthusiasm and practical skills are just as important, if not more so, than a degree. This perspective also comes from a personal experience. 

“While I joined Zoho with a degree, securing my role relied heavily on a referral that talked more to my personal abilities and passion than my education level. My intuition, proactivity and enthusiasm were as important to Zoho as any certificate I had. At the end of the day, talent is developed in many different ways, and looking beyond the degree can help build a much more talent-diverse team.”

Erin Brindley, Head of Programs at Generation Australia

“Employers hunting for the right talent need to shed the ‘CV trap’ of over-valuing qualifications and experience, as these factors aren’t always accurate indicators of the best person for the job.  

“Instead of weighing up degrees versus experience, employers should focus on whether someone can actually do the job they’re hiring for; something which is not always possible to assess in a CV.

“Developing a hiring practice that focuses on skills, rather than degrees experience can support faster onboarding, higher productivity an engagement, and stronger retention.

“Technical skillsets aren’t always evident in a traditional CV document but can be identified early on through work sample-based applications and interviews that explore both technical and non-technical competencies.

“In fact, many employers find that non-technical skills, such as adaptability, communication, innovation and critical thinking, are more indicative of an employee’s ability to add value from day one on the job.

“Shifting focus in the first stage of the recruitment process will open employers up to a larger, more diverse pool of talent; helping them to find motivated, skilled employees and fostering a more diverse workforce.”  

Vu Tran, Co-founder, Go1.com

”At Go1.com, we believe that formal education (e.g. degrees) plays an important role across many industries. But no matter what industry you’re working in, skills and experience also play a key role in a person’s ability.


“My medical degree has played an incredibly important job in giving me the knowledge and baseline skills that I need to work in the medical profession. But it’s the skills and experience gained from hands-on work that’s ultimately formed the most important parts of what I need to be able to fulfil my role as a medical practitioner.

“When it comes to hiring newcomers, I prefer to focus on the candidate’s ability to learn. So, if you have a choice between someone with many degrees or years of experience or an exceptional ability and desire to learn, I’d choose the exceptional learner any day.”

Ian Yip, CEO,  Avertro

“Holding at least one university degree tells us two key things about that person: they have the ability and dedication to focus on an admirable goal and can pass exams. We so often hear people comment that they don’t use anything they learned during their degree in their day-to-day work, which may be true. But there are likely many non-obvious things that we do well as a result of graduating with a university degree. In short, having a degree is useful, particularly if it is relevant to the vocation one has chosen for themselves. That does not mean the absence of a degree is a negative.

“Experience counts for at least as much, if not more than having a degree. As an employer, we focus much more on a person’s experience, even the parts that don’t directly relate to the role they applied to, than what they studied at university when making a decision to hire them. A person’s experiences say much more about their character, how they face adversity, how they’ve been successful, and the lessons they’ve learnt more than a piece of paper can.

“All things considered, having a degree is most useful when one does not have any work experience. It is something that a hiring manager should take into account, but the decision must ultimately be about the complete person. In this context, experience is more important than the degree they may or may not hold.

“Ultimately, employers should hire primarily for attitude, coachability, and values. Without these, no amount of experience and degrees will make the person a true fit for the organisation.”

Carol Chris, Regional General Manager ANZ, GBG

“Every industry is experiencing more rapid change and digitalisation than in previous years, and what this means is that approaches to training and education need to be ongoing. Consequently, qualifications like university degrees, while of course are valuable at certain stages in one’s career, are less of a showstopper for an employer in comparison to experience and attitude. 

“At GBG, as a growing and global company tasked with combating some of the financial industries’ most pressing and complex challenges, including identity theft, financial fraud, and digital transformation, we’re looking for a diverse range of thinkers who can help us relate to, address, and support businesses and people from every corner of the world. Being able to act nimbly, think outside the box, and manoeuvre the various dynamics of the business world can be learned to a certain extent through tertiary education, but will mostly be acquired throughout one’s career via hands-on experience.”

Dionne Woo, Chief People Officer, SiteMinder

“As a company of over 700 employees globally, currently with 130 open roles with half of those based in Australia, welcoming newcomers to the business is something we’re managing every day. It’s important that the hiring process isn’t treated as a tick-box exercise, and that we are looking beyond surface-level details to ensure new joiners don’t just ‘pass’ the interview process but will enjoy and add value throughout their entire time at SiteMinder. 

“We do not have set rules on what exact types of educational or professional background someone needs to be able to join and succeed in the company. Particularly in the fast-moving tech industry, which is changing even more rapidly due to the pandemic, a flexible and solution-oriented attitude, and a proactive approach to self-learning and improvement is going to be far more important than a degree. Beyond what’s on paper, we’re looking for people who will add to our diverse and innovative environment, which means bringing in people from different personal and professional backgrounds and ensuring they can keep pace with constant change while still adding value and unique perspectives.”

Tom Cornell, Head of Assessments (APAC), HireVue

“Neither degrees nor on the job experience are the best way to assess talent in today’s world. Where or what someone studied and their previous employment can lead to bias that distracts from more important factors. In other words, what really matters, above all else, is a candidate’s capability for a specific position within a company — their competencies. To accurately assess competencies, businesses should look beyond the humble resume and conduct assessments that are designed specifically to assess psychological traits and cognitive skills relevant to the workplace and the particular role.

“In addition, the way interviews are conducted is also key. We recommend exploring the use of structured interviews, which involve a consistent set of predetermined questions, as part of the recruitment process. The reason being that structured interviews are well-documented as one of the most reliable ways to identify the candidates for the job and reduce the bias that can often be a component of interviewing. Rather than free-flowing conversations, which can be different for every candidate, structured interviews focus on a candidate’s job-relevant knowledge, skills, abilities, and work styles, providing a consistent and fair experience for all candidates.” 

Brodie Haupt, CEO and co-founder, WLTH

“Building a strong team is an important process for every business to complete in order to ensure core objectives and goals are met efficiently and effectively. In our experience, there is more that goes into hiring than just degrees and CVs. Instead, we drill down into each applicant’s specific skill set in order to determine whether they would be an essential asset to our business. 

“Beyond skills and experience, we also believe it’s important to make decisions based on how you believe that person will fit into the team and wider company. This is important when you are thinking longer term, as once you nail down a strong team culture, it will help with the retention of staff and overall morale.

“As a business, if you aren’t taking into consideration all of these different hiring criteria, it can be a very expensive exercise. Not only can it lead to a high turnover of staff, but it also directly influences the dynamic of teams and can often lead to decreased productivity.”

Nic Brill, Chief Operations Officer, Poolwerx

“Skills you can teach, unlike experience, culture and passion. 

“When recruiting at Poolwerx – whether it’s for head office or franchise partners – we generally value life experience over degrees. For us, having a connection to our brand is critical. Systems and processes are easily learnt, but passion for your product, service, business or industry is something that has to be brought to the table. 

“For some technical roles we do require a Cert III or IV, but many of the roles we’re currently recruiting don’t have a particular degree requirement, instead we’re looking for experience, culture and passion for the role. 

“When it comes to new franchise partners, candidates don’t need to have any previous pool industry experience. Our network is made up of franchise partners from all backgrounds, including former finance executives or management consultants, who bring with them an innovation-led approach, and the experience and business acumen to quickly build a substantial business.”

Luke Blincoe, CEO, ReAmped Energy

“The classic answer is – it depends! Obviously if you’re hiring a medical professional or pilot, then formal qualifications are critical. Otherwise, it’s really important to find a balance between knowing what you are looking for and having an open mind to consider left-field candidates.

“At ReAmped Energy, we think it’s extremely important to hire candidates that add something new and different to the team, rather than replicate what we already have. Some people call it diversity, but we reckon it’s just common sense. 

“In saying that, there is a bit of an art to successfully hiring a diverse team. Choosing the right person – formal qualifications aside – requires a level of self-awareness that can be quite confronting, but acknowledging our own unconscious biases is key to building a fun, creative and engaged team.

“We tend to hire on values and train for competence, so being really clear on your company’s values is key. Degree or no degree, it doesn’t matter, as long as you are open-minded and hire the best value-add for the role and the team.”

Jodette Cleary, Chief People & Culture Officer,  hipages 

“As a purpose and values-driven business, we primarily look for candidates who show alignment to our values and will be a good fit for our collaborative and innovative ‘one team’ culture.

“We screen for strong work ethic, drive and curiosity, as these are the qualities that set an employee up for success and cannot be taught in the way technical skills can be. It’s always positive to see qualifications such as degrees as this shows commitment and diligence, but we believe it’s important to look at a person’s potential over their experience. Our expert teams at hipages can teach anything that needs to be taught, but it is the hunger, drive and behaviours which cannot be trained that are key to the long-term success and retention of our ‘hipagers’!” 


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By Clare Loewenthal

Clare is an author, business commentator and passionate contributor to Dynamic Business. She was the Founder and Publisher of Dynamic Small Business magazine, which became Australia’s largest small business publication.