Assessing the Value of Education Versus Experience in Hiring

When considering nurse candidates for a role, where do you place more value — education or experience?

This can be a loaded question since the evaluation of education versus experience in applicants is a process based on various elements. With some applicants, recruiters may be more impressed with their years of experience, but with others, more emphasis could be put on education. This will vary from interview to interview, nurse to nurse, and job to job.

But what happens if one applicant has an impressive educational background but little work experience, while another candidate has years of great experience, but not the degree the job requires? This may be a challenge you’ve faced before, and one you’ve probably given a lot of thought.

Deciding between education versus experience

In previous years, an applicant was deemed a good fit for a role solely based on what was listed on their resume. However, recently, what makes a candidate the right fit is a combination of their education, experience, skills they’ve acquired, and skills they want to develop.

Healthcare recruiters and other talent acquisition professionals have used algorithms, talent data, metrics, and more to measure eligibility of potential candidates. But, in the current job market, there is a shift in these traditions, moving the focus from what criteria applicants are missing to what applicants can potentially bring to a role or ways they can add onto their skill set.

Evaluating an applicant’s education, which includes 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.

However, gauging experience 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. Experience brings to light a variation in skills and abilities such as time management, delegation skills, or proficiency with technology. Work or professional experiences also allow candidates to highlight their softer skills — elements that aren’t graded in classrooms.

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 the applicant do during previous employment that makes them worthy of having more weight placed on experience if the degrees aren’t enough? What were their 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 good examples of valuable experiences and skills.

Talk to both referrals and references about applicants’ attitude, motivation, work ethic, and focus. Then use the information to weigh their hiring potential.

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

How to decide who to hire

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

Will the applicant fit well into your organizational culture, and do they have the right interpersonal skills for the job?

Applicants also need to know they can tip the scale in their favor if they’re willing to put in the time and work. Here is some guidance to offer your candidates:

  • If the applicant needs to finish the degree a position calls for or if a specialty certification is absolutely required, encourage the candidate to finish or get certified. These components could benefit them in the end.
  • If they have a new degree and not enough experience, advise the candidate to consider taking an alternate position being offered — even if it’s not their first choice. It will give them the experience (or experiences) they need.

Education versus experience when hiring nursing staff can be a matter of personal and professional judgment. Both components are equally important during the hiring process. However, a candidate’s education or experience, individually, can carry weight all by itself, so by removing the mindset that all good candidates must have both education and experience, you can widen your pool of potential nurse candidates.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in September 2018 and has been updated with new content.