What’s More Important: Experience or Grades?
By Joe Issid
Monster Contributing Writer
Throughout my entire education there was enormous pressure placed on me to routinely produce good grades. As a product of the 80s and 90s, the conventional wisdom back then was that performing well in school would automatically translate to a successful career within one’s chosen area of study. So, I studied incredibly hard, breezed through high school and went to a top university where I obtained a bachelor’s degree. And then guess what happened? I found myself virtually unemployable by the time I started looking for work. Why? Because I had absolutely no work experience to complement my academic achievements. And this is a problem that will likely reach epidemic proportions in the coming years.
At some point this year, Millennials will comprise the largest living generation. And the workforce will surely reflect this demographic change. This influx will result in a historically competitive job marketplace where employers will have dozens (if not hundreds) of candidates from which to choose. And you can be confident that having a pristine transcript is not going to be enough to get your foot in the door.
The problem that has faced nearly every young job seeker is the paradox of inexperience: how can one gain experience if no one is willing to hire someone with no experience? I can recall the incredible frustration I felt perusing online job boards to discover that all “entry level” jobs required 2-3 years’ experience. And virtually none of these jobs made any reference whatsoever to GPA or any type of academic achievement; they were all simply looking for someone who was able to demonstrate the necessary skills to perform the job. So, should we eschew our education in favour of gaining work experience?
Learning to learn
While getting straight A-s in middle school is a difficult and impressive feat, the information that you learn will (in all likelihood) be forgotten shortly thereafter. But the skills that you develop during your formative years are invaluable. Case in point: I have a degree in English Literature yet I spent the first decade of my career working as a software developer. So, how was I able to make this immense shift? Having spent many years learning a wide array of subjects and skills allowed me to be malleable and flexible when it came to picking up an entirely new discipline. In essence, I was very skilled at learning. And this is an aptitude that can dull over time. To wit, when I returned to school in my thirties, I found that I had completely lost my ability to easily pick up and remember large volumes of information.
As someone who has spent many years as a hiring manager, I will confess to rarely focusing on the “Education” section of a candidate’s resume. (Admittedly, I have not worked in academia or in a discipline that requires a specific educational background). Most hiring managers are looking for candidates who can demonstrate the ability to perform the job at hand. And the best (and easiest) way to determine this is to look at the candidate’s employment history and that they have proven to be dependable, trustworthy and industrious. Having said that, I am not discounting a person’s educational background at all. Thing is, though, I am not particularly concerned with how someone performed at school but rather that they went to school. I am more interested in the macro benefits of an education: critical thinking, autonomy, decision making, prioritization, team work and the like. An education provide you with invaluable skills and tools that are attractive to all employers so try and recognize that any good employer will want to see evidence of these.
When I was entering my undergrad, I desperately wanted to get a part-time job but was heavily discouraged by members of my family as they feared that it would distract me from my studies. In hindsight, this turned out to be quite damaging advice as having a job while studying would have made a tremendous difference in my early career. If you are in the position to get a job while studying, do yourself a favour and jump on the opportunity. If your area of study allows for internships, apprenticeships or sponsors work study programs, I urge you to take full advantage. Being able to have some work experience on your resume in addition to your education upon graduation will be invaluable.