How Much Does Education Matter To Your Job Prospects?

How Much Does Education Matter To Your Job Prospects?

Your parents might have spent years persuading you of the value of an education, but when it comes to actually scoring a job, it seems most Australians believe that on-the-job training matters far more than your qualifications. Is that wise?

Picture by Helena Liu

The Global Workforce Index from Kelly Services surveyed 97,000 people across the world about career development trends, including 4,334 in Australia. A hefty proportion of those Australians apparently haven’t found their formal qualifications so handy once they’ve hit the workplace. 86 per cent of those surveyed said that experience had been the major driver in their career development, while just 12 per cent said that formal education was a bigger driver.

That doesn’t mean people want to ditch their qualifications; 95 per cent still said they considered them important. The most obvious way to reconcile those two findings would seem to be that you often need a qualification to get a foot in the door, but once that has happened, your own performance and experience count for much more. Or as Kelly Services MD Karen Colfer put it in the press announcement:

While formal education forms the base of a career, as employees progress in their career life-cycle and gain real world skills and experience the emphasis on formal education reduces proportionally.

Those figures cover jobs of all kinds, not just working in IT (which is our particular focus here at Evolve). On that front, the good news is that you’re slightly less likely to find yourself unexpectedly changing jobs. In Australia, the industries with the greatest expectation of career change were tourism and leisure (63 per cent), hospitality (58 per cent) and utilities and education (both with 57 per cent).

The other interesting finding from the study is what people believe influences whether they get hired. Previous experience was the top pick (64 per cent), followed by performance in interviews (22 per cent) and references (10 per cent). Education again got the short end of the stick, being picked by just 4 per cent.

Of course, those figures are based on asking employees, not employers, so they might not represent the last word on the subject. How important has education been in your career path? Share your experience in the comments.

Evolve is a weekly column at Lifehacker looking at trends and technologies IT workers need to know about to stay employed and improve their careers.


  • I got a software development job straight out of school nearly 5 years ago now, and have since dabbled in lots of different areas with desktop, server and network technologies. I had no trouble getting my current job at a high-profile company with no tertiary qualifications.

  • I think it comes down to the nature of the job and what they’re looking for in an applicant..

    As a pretty fresh graduate I’ve seen places which are quite adamant on the need for University qualifications. But there are those companies which value other things over it, e.g. innovation.

  • When I used to be involved in hiring programmers for my department, I found that applicants that had an engineering, trade or other background (such as accounting) were vastly superior to pure graduates. This was found by hindsight. I noticed that practical skills gained outside of IT helped the employee with lateral as well as structured thinking.

    I also remember something my mentor told me when hiring staff. He said the only thing that really counted when an applicant had a degree or diploma was that it meant the applicant could apply themselves and finish what they started. That was important, the actual qualification and subject was of less value.

  • Heh shows the difference between cities and small towns, around here qualifications, ability and experience all come second to being related to someone who already works in the company

  • Some facts and observations from my experience I’d like to share:
    – No such thing as a ‘career’ these days and it’s not a meritocracy.
    – Experienced staff without tertiary education often take the heat for company performance and by staff that do, for far lower pay.
    – Graduates often take credit for the innovation and hard work of ‘unqualified’ staff they’ve just helped to fire. Because it seems a piece of paper says they can.
    – Universities hand out places to people who can afford it, places are very limited or out of reach for most Australians, no wonder alternative training is surging.
    – Job agencies are not in it for your professional development.

    I’ve personally seen hard-working people from less privileged backgrounds or have no hope of winning a place at university run rings around graduates from, supposedly, the best and most prestigious universities around the world – again and again!

    They work harder because they are more grateful to land that job (it’s not an expectation).

    Whilst education is crucial, to prove my points just look at the state and events of the world over the last decade alone, there has never been more professional incompetence, unaccountability or illegal misconduct throughout so many sectors and regulators.

    My wish is for companies to consider going to the trouble of hiring and testing directly vs agencies that do not know what they are talking about and often rail-road highly experienced people with huge potential into dead-end jobs, all because they do not have a degree.

  • The education thing is away to get a foot in the door if you don’t already have a foot in the door.

    I have an incomplete bachelor of business. I also have almost 15 years experience in enterprise IT. My experience in IT counts a LOT more than a degree would. And counts a LOT more than a business degree would have had I completed it. But I got the foot in the door through family connections and then kept the foot in the door with a solid reputation, industry connections and a lucky work history.

    If I wanted to go to anything other than IT, I’d need education, because I don’t have a foot in those doors. The only exceptions would be if I knew someone or had some kind of other skill/relationship where I could get that door opened for me.

    If you have someone willing to hire you for a first level help desk gig in a role where you can self educate and where you will learn on the job – it’s probably a better path than going to uni. If IT Operations is where you want to spend the next big chunk of your career anyway. But if you don’t already have that foot in the door? School is important.

    Also, University is WAY funner than work.

  • After never finishing high-school and bumming around in jobs as a waiter and call centre agent I took a sideways step into an entry level IT job.. Now I’m earning 6 figures and working in a senior role for a global consultancy based in London.

    After 3 years in my IT job and showing some level of advancement on my CV, no one ever asked about my education.

    10 years later, I’m in a brilliant job, but I still can’t help but think what I’d have achieved with more knowledge, be it from a formal education or otherwise.

    Knowledge is key, not a piece of paper.

  • I finished Year 12 last year and had 2 jobs: Woolies from mid 2008-2009 and Eagle Boys from early to late 2010. The transition from unskilled jobs in high school to skilled jobs that require tertiary certs after HS is surprising.

    Finding a job after high school was horrendous to say the least. Putting in resumes got me nowhere as half the places either threw them in the bin or refused to take them. So I tried looking online. Not one employer got back to me. Not a single one.

    I decided I wanted to have a career in IT, so I decided to hand in a resume at a computer shop and hope for an entry level job. I got offered a trial shift, which didn’t end in me getting the job because the boss was too lazy to train someone to fix computers.

    So now, after 9 months of me wasting my life, I’ve paid $2000 to do a Cert 2 and 3 course in IT at TAFE. Hopefully it will get me a job…

    I’m not the only person who can’t find work either, a friend of mine who did 3 months of contract work for the local council can’t find any either. Hell, my father has been a local waterproofer for the past 20 years and even he’s been having trouble to find work. I don’t know, maybe its just a Sunshine Coast thing.

    • No… i cant find work either, i did about half a semester of TAFE in IT but i got a job and had to quit, i wasnt doing enough hours a week at TAFE to keep centrelink happy and i still had to look for jobs, the one job only lasted a few months before the SA Housing Trust decided to cancel the contract and now i have no job.

      Lucky for me my job serviced provider paid for me to go to TAFE.

    • This is what i’ve seen occur after i graduated high school last year. The problem is that probably over the last decade, employers have shifted from giving people on the job training (with no qualifications) to now needing people with at least experience in the field….funny thing is though, no one is offering jobs for “experience” anymore, and there is now this large gap between job opportunites and the ability for people to get it.

      Since im at uni this year, a casual or part time job was a priority of mine, but since end of WACE exams last year (heck didnt even go to leavers) i’ve been looking and not one position anywhere popped up that i was able to do. Though i did get far with a JBHIFI application to an interview with the manager, but i had to ask him how many hours he wants the position to fill in for, which on my schedule just wouldnt work at all, and i had to let him know that. This is also coupled with the fact our unemployment rate in our town is almost 12%, at least a 15 minute drive to the city next door, and woolworths evicting all shops from our local shopping centre. There isn’t much chance to work unless you at least get an entry degree somewhere to be able to work as something

      • My cousin finished a degree in mechatronics (a duel degree in engineering and computer science, specialising in robotics and stuff)

        took over a year and a half to get a job (had part time work in the mean time)
        Not enough interest in his area of expertise

        • In regards to mechatronics I’ve been told that its better to specialise. Apparently there are more jobs available in pure mechanical/electrical engineering or computer science.

          • Likewise – I graduated with honors and couldn’t find anything. Graduate positions wanted me to have a couple of years experience.

            Australia doesn’t have much of a market for Mechatronics engineers, particularly if you don’t want to move into almost pure mech for mining. Companies advertise forthem, but the roles are generally lower level.

            Even then a lot of the work is more technician focused rather than design. Most of the other “engineering” jobs I went for targeted at Mechatronics grads were largely technician roles. The jobs are overseas.

  • Well, soon i will be servicing photo copier machines. Thats after finishing a Diploma in IT and getting my MCITP Enterprise Administrator and MS Office Master certs.

    Turns out that even with a diploma and MS certs i cant get a job as a level 1 helpdesk agent even though i have 10 years of customer service experience, have helped run an advertising server business and had a short stint of a couple of months doing AS400 helpdesk. Yet alone being a computer user for that last 23 odd years (im only 30).

    For some reason all of this doesnt matter and recruiters say that its not enough experience. So after a month looking and not getting anything I had to get a part time job to bring in some money in the mean time.

  • “Those figures cover jobs of all kinds, not just working in IT ” … I’m quite happy for my doctor, dentist and kid’s teachers to have qualifications.

    Yet its funny that most comments have been suggesting experience over tertiary qualifications in the IT industry. Just goes to demonstrate what a undisciplined industry it is.

    While I agree somewhat in the long term experience counts more, it doesn’t work getting you in the door with no experience.

    That said, to me degree’s generally trump certs, and here’s why: anyone can get a certification.

    Buy a SAM’s “how to blitz a exam”, read it, pay for the exam and voila – your an expert. I’ve also been at a few companies now in a hiring positions, and while resumes with certifications look great on paper, they’re worthless for encouraging lateral thinking and date before you know it.

  • In some fields, education is a necessity. I don’t know too many accountants who spent their spare time fiddling with tax return forms and stuff and just walked into a job, plus education is a little more insurance that you’re not going to walk through the door, get a number wrong and kill a business.

    In IT, it’s a little different. I did Cert IV in IT at TAFE and the only useful thing I got out of the course, was the networking component (that taught me Active Directory, albeit by command line, and setting up Windows domains). The rest was programming (Java was useful, but we also did VB6, when VB.NET had been out for a few years, and Toolbook II, a program so old, it ran on XP in a 3.11 legacy mode). It was a good thing that I had spent 14 years tinkering with computers and building websites, as THAT is what landed me my current job.

Log in to comment on this story!