Digital Careers: Experience Vs Qualifications

By Amy @BubbleJobs

On this blog, we’re always harping on about how important cover letters, CVs and interviews are, however we know that to even get to that point in the job application process, you need to have the right skills, qualifications and experience to tick all the boxes in the first place.

Now, just like everyone else, here at Bubble we were always taught that qualifications were the be-all and end-all when we were growing up – and we’re sure in some ways nothing’s really changed – but today we thought we’d potentially challenge that theory and attempt to work out if qualifications really do win out every time or if experience is more important when it comes to securing a digital career.

Why are we focusing on the digital sector? Well, because that’s what Bubble’s all about – and additionally because the industry is so new so it makes a great case study. Think about it; the digital industry is growing and changing every day so can we really apply the old-school rules of career development to such a young, dynamic industry?

fightThe first thing that springs to our mind when asked if qualifications or experience is more important when it comes to digital jobs? Experience all the way – but qualifications are never going to hurt! You see, like we said before, the digital industry is changing… and it’s changing fast!

From SEO to social media and user experience design, employers all across the sector are searching for candidates that have got some prior hands-on experience within the sector – and have survived everything the digital sector has thrown at them thus far! They want to hear from SEO candidates who have experienced the good, the bad and the ugly of the Penguins and Pandas, social media marketers who have had to embrace new platforms and PPC execs who have experimented with adwords and helped to increase traffic to a website by 500%.

Now, before we go any further, we should probably clarify that we’re not trying to say that qualifications are irrelevant and unnecessary – far from it – in fact, qualifications are still pretty essential when it comes to ‘laying the groundwork’ for any digital career. Some university degrees are still essential for digital jobs because they can provide you with vital transferable and ‘soft’ skills… but more often than not, relevant, quality experience is favoured above qualifications time and time again in the digital industry.

Not sure what I’m talking about? Put yourself in a digital employer’s shoes; would you be more inclined to take on an outstanding candidate who has got an amazing undergraduate degree and has just finished a Masters or a candidate who doesn’t necessarily have as many formal qualifications but has hands-on experience within the industry? 9 times out of 10 you’d always go for the more experienced candidate. Why? Because despite the fact they might not be as technically ‘qualified’, they have that experience that money just can’t buy – and they can put all the hindsight that comes with that experience to good use during their time with your company.

Of course, that’s not to say that that the ‘experience over qualification’ rule applies to all industries – or even all sectors within the digital sector itself. Yep, even within the digital industry, different ‘rules’ apply and it all really depends on the sector and the personal preferences of the employer. Any obvious patterns? Well, in more ‘traditional’ digital sectors like graphic design, web development and project management, official qualifications are always going to hold a lot of weight with employers because they involve a lot of tried and tested techniques and patterns. On the other hand, with careers in things like SEO, online marketing, social media and copywriting, qualifications are definitely less important. Why? Because they’re still relatively ‘new’ so there aren’t necessarily the official qualifications available just yet to support the roles.

Hmm, OK… let’s put university qualifications to one side for a minute – what about qualifications within the industry? Well, this is where it gets more interesting and the lines definitely become more blurred. You see, thanks to the IDM and other industry bodies, more and more relevant courses are being offered every day by key industry professionals who have that all important experience under their belt – this makes them a really useful resource, however that’s not to say that these are essential either. Yes, courses like this can be super-useful and can help you to advance your career but they still involve a great deal of theory, work and (in some cases) study – all of which take up time that could otherwise be spent getting hands-on experience and learning lessons in a real-world digital environment.

Saying that though; there are some additional courses/qualifications you can pick up while working in your current role (ie. in your own time) that can definitely help you to advance in your digital career. I am of course talking about industry standard qualifications – things like Adwords, Analytics and Prince2 (project management) that are widely recognised across the industry as a whole and are sometimes specifically requested when it comes to recruiting PPC, SEO and project management candidates.

In our (humble) experience, we find that when our recruiters and employers feed back to us regarding the candidates that have applied for their job, it’s always a candidate’s particular experience (whether good or bad) that gets mentioned before anything else – in fact, I don’t think we’ve ever had feedback from a client saying the candidates that have applied didn’t have the right qualifications… so I think we’re definitely on to something!

To sum up; yes, qualifications are important (and sometimes essential – the more specific and niche, the better) but 9 times out of 10, it’s experience that really counts and that can make all the difference when it comes to securing a new digital job.

We’re really keen to get your thoughts on this one. Have you been applying for digital jobs and found your lack of experience has held you back or is it your lack of qualifications that’s been the stumbling block? Alternatively, if you’re a digital recruiter or employer, do you tend to favour experience over qualifications or vice versa? Leave us a comment or send us a tweet – @BubbleJobs.

Comments 2

  1. I’m a student web developer / software engineer and nearly all of the jobs I’d want to apply for require both the experience and the qualifications. Many universities offer students the chance to go on a placement year in the industry. I’m currently on mine at the moment, and soon realised not longer after starting, that it was probably the best decision. I’ve ever made.

    I think more needs to be done with regards to students to entice them into those placements. They’ll be leaving university with a degree, and a years experience in their field of work. – bonus.

    Luckily for me, my employer has offered me full time work after I graduate – something which is not uncommon amongst my peers.

  2. Hi Dan,

    Sorry for the late reply! Congrats on the job offer – that’s great news! 🙂

    In terms of the placement/work experience, I definitely agree – like I said in the blog, hands-on experience is so invaluable these days and I think without having some kind of commercial experience, graduates are definitely putting themselves on the back foot when it comes to securing their first job.

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