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Education vs experience: What’s more important when hiring?

BY: Eileen Williamson on September 5, 2018

When interviewing nurse applicants, do you place more importance on education or experience?

Education vs experience: What's more important when hiring?

I’m sure this isn’t the first time you’ve been asked this question about hiring, nor will it be the last. Many of you will respond, “it depends,” because evaluating the education and experience of an applicant is a process you know is dependent on many things.

With some applicants, you may be more impressed with their years of experience, but with others you put more emphasis on education. It varies from interview to interview, nurse to nurse, job to job.

What do you do if one applicant comes in with all the right educational credentials, but little real experience, while another has good experience, but not the degree the job requires?

It’s a conundrum I’m sure you’ve faced many times, and one you’ve probably given a lot of thought.

How do you decide if candidates measure up?

When applicants are deemed right for certain jobs, what makes them the right fit is based on the education, experience and skills they’ve acquired.

Nursing recruitment experts know this, and in the current job market they’re using algorithms, talent data, metrics and more to help them measure eligibility.

When it comes to evaluating an applicant’s education, checking degrees and certifications is not all that complicated. Grades and scores, degrees and certifications can be verified, and decisions can be made based on how they meet the organization’s educational requirements for the position.

Evaluating experience, however, is not as straightforward. Experience isn’t just a measurement of years; it’s about the training and practice the applicant had during those years. Here is something I heard once from a wise mentor about experience:

“Two people worked at the same job in the same organization for two decades. One had the necessary motivation and drive. He became better and better at his job, using each experience he had as an opportunity to grow. He honed his skills and learned from his mistakes. He stayed up to date in his industry and moved ahead in his organization.

The other one did his job in the same way day after day, year after year, never broadening his knowledge base, taking on new challenges, improving his skills, trying new things or working to move his career ahead. At the end of 20 years, the first one had 20 years of real experience, while the other had one year of experience times 20.”

Heed the advice of colleagues

In the talent acquisition process, what other nurses and past employers have to say about an applicant is crucial. References and referrals are very important — personal referrals probably more so.

In nursing, verifying dates of employment may not be enough; the stakes are too high. You can call an applicant’s references or ask them to complete a form or questionnaire, but it’s the personal referrals that will tell you most about your applicants.

  • What did he or she do during previous employment that makes the applicant worthy of having more weight placed on experience if the degrees are not enough?
  • What was his or her challenges?
  • What kind of experiences did it include?

Use of special equipment, advanced computer technology skills, EMR training, serving as a Magnet champion, selection for informal leadership roles, organizational committee work, bilingualism and volunteerism are some good examples of valuable experiences and skills.

Talk to both referrals and references about the applicant’s attitude, motivation and drive, work ethic and focus. Then use the information to weigh his or her hiring potential.

Ask about soft skills, such as thinking critically, managing stress, problem-solving, functioning under pressure, handling crisis situations and multi-tasking abilities. Know the questions that should be asked and ask them.

job application process

How to decide who to hire

There are two important things that can serve as tie-breakers between education and experience, and even between two candidates: personality and organizational fit.

  1. Will the applicant fit well into your organizational culture?
  2. Does he or she have the right people and/or interpersonal skills for the job?

Also, applicants need to know they can tip the scale in their favor if they’re willing to put in the time and work.

  • If he or she needs to finish the degree a position calls for, or if specialty certification is absolutely required, tell the candidate to finish and get certified no matter what it takes.
  • If he or she has a new degree and experience is lacking, tell the candidate to take the job being offered, even if it’s not their first choice. It will give them the experience (and experiences) they need.

And finally, tell candidates they’ll never regret the time they put in to get the positions of their dreams.

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Eileen Williamson

Eileen Williamson, MSN, RN, is a former senior vice president and chief nurse executive at OnCourse Learning, where she led nursing programs and initiatives. She continues to write and act as a consultant for Nurse.com. Before joining the company in 1998, Williamson was employed by North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System in New York, where she held a number of leadership positions in nursing and hospital administration, including chief nurse at two of the system’s member hospitals. She holds a BSN and an MSN in administration, and is a graduate fellow of the Johnson & Johnson University of Pennsylvania Wharton School Nurse Executives program. She also is a board member and past president of the New Jersey League for Nursing, a constituent league of the National League for Nursing.