How clients are shifting from wanting tech experience over degrees

Recruitment Consultant Thomas Bugden has been placing people into roles for two years. In that time he’s seen the needs of his clients changing in favour of candidates with work experience over graduates. Read his thoughts on why he believes this is happening and the issue many degrees are creating.

I’ve only worked in recruitment for two years – previously to this I spent a year as a developer - but I have noticed a huge shift in that time. Clients are placing more and more emphasis on wanting candidates with job experience rather than candidates with degrees. I had a job spec in last week that wanted someone with either a degree or one year’s experience. Seeing as most degrees typically take three years, its effectively saying that experience in the workplace is worth triple the value to employers than a degree.

I think there are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, whilst University arms you with many skills (the ability to stay up until 3am the night before your assignment is due being one of the main things I learned!) it rarely gives you experience in an office environment. In the workplace you’re expected to turn up, on time, every day, to work within a team and to get your project completed on time. It’s very different to the University environment.

The real working world is far more agile

But I think the bigger factor is that at University, you’re given an assignment - you might be told to write a programme that does X,Y and Z. And that’s it. The requirements don’t change and nothing really goes wrong because it’s one small part of your coursework and the brief doesn’t change once set. The real world is of course, nothing like this. Developers could be halfway through a project when the client decides they hate it and want to change it, or they can’t afford it or there could be a huge outage that you have to fix. University is a sheltered environment that doesn’t expose you to the everyday problems, niggles and obstacles that come up at work – problems you need to learn to fix. The other thing is that at University if you fail an exam or assignment for whatever reason, the chances are you’ll probably be able to retake it at a later date. In the workplace, if a project’s gone wrong that’s potentially a client that’s gone with it and in the absolute worst case scenario, it may even be your position gone!

I’ve seen people who have degrees and even masters who are clearly extremely intelligent but who don’t know how to handle it when something goes sideways at work, they fall apart. And that’s not their fault – it’s because they haven’t had that exposure, they don’t know how to deal with the stress of it. And even though most of my clients probably don’t put, ‘must be able to handle weird and random problems,’ on their job specs – it’s certainly a skill they’re all looking for in a candidate. In Bristol alone a junior developer with a year’s development experience is commanding an average £4k more salary than a graduate developer with zero experience.

My advice

My advice for anyone wanting to work in tech, who does want to go down the University route would be to look into doing a sandwich year which will give you some industry experience– as well as the chance to earn a bit of money or to look into company apprenticeships for the same reason. Alternatively, to take up some coding in your spare time. I placed a candidate recently who didn’t have a degree and who in fact, didn’t have any commercial experience in development but they had done a lot of it in their own time. When he took the technical test, he outperformed the previous two candidates who at the time, were on £20k more than him! Tech is one of the few sectors that offers you the luxury of being able to practice at home and the opportunity to really hone your skills – so don’t miss that.

Of course, I’m not saying there is no value to having a degree – you learn some fantastic life skills, to be independent, to manage your time and often learn to live away from home for the first time. But in my first year as a web developer, I learnt more in terms of the actual programming than I did in three years of my degree. I’d also warn that in my experience, most tech graduates want to work in the coolest firms, with the latest, cutting edge technology in sexy areas like AI. But realistically, those doors will be shut until you have experience in the more basic roles with the more standard technology. It’s just the way it is.

I think Universities do an excellent job of marketing a degree as the one and only way into a profession – and I suppose the good news is that, at least in tech, that’s not true. There are many pathways into the industry, so don’t feel you have to go down the traditional route.

We would love to hear your thoughts on this - as a client do you find experience tends to trump a degree? Get in touch to discuss this further.

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