Work Experience vs. Certifications - What Do Employers Look For?

As IT recruiters, this is a question that we hear frequently: What do employers look for – work experience or certifications? The real answer to this question is “both.” Employers want technical professionals with relevant, hands-on experience who can relate to on-the-job requirements, but they also want individuals who’ve been specifically trained on current versions of IT systems, software, practices and procedures.

On the IT staffing sales side, we speak with hiring managers on a daily basis. Part of our discussion is to better understand the business side of a project or the technologies that they’re looking to implement. This not only helps us identify the right technical person for the job but also the right cultural match.

That said, we recently started to ask the following question to a number of Employers: “If you were forced to choose between otherwise equal candidates, would you choose certification over experience, or experience over certification?” The most frequent answer was “experience.” Therefore, if you find yourself forced to choose between getting experience and getting certified, you should choose to gain experience. The way we look at it is that it will be easier to get certified later if you have experience, than it will be to get experience later, if you have a certification. This is worth remembering when you decide whether to spend a lot of energy, and money, obtaining as many certifications as possible.

Having said this, on the flip side, IT hiring managers also said that certifications certainly add value to the candidate. With all things being equal, they would choose a candidate with certifications over a candidate without. With this in mind, we also posed the following scenario:

Position Available: Network Technician/Administrator
Three people apply for this position. Applicant #1 has 10+ years experience as an admin but has no certifications. Applicant #2 has 5+ years experience as an admin, with CompTIA’s A+, Network +, Security+ & Server+ certifications. Which candidate do you think the company is going to hire?

The response was pretty clear: Having a formal education or certifications is always better than not having it. It shows that there is a base line of knowledge and gives comfort to those who may not have the technical skills to truly qualify a candidate’s technical ability. Having relevant experience is always better than no experience. However, IT managers unanimously said that the ideal person has both, the formal education/certifications required for the position and the technical experience to do the IT job.

Not to confuse the matter ever more, but in addition to the certifications and work experience, there is also the cultural fit. Karen Person, regional managing office director for an IT staffing company called Spherion, says: “We are finding more clients are looking for people who have experience in similar [IT] environments. Additionally, the right fit from a culture perspective is important … candidates who know how to work well within the unique environment of the company and the specific team. Team/peer interviews are playing a major role in hiring decisions today. Technical skills, experience and certifications are all important but having the ability to clearly communicate ideas and possessing a good understanding of business environments are also important skills for our clients today. While holding certifications is gaining momentum, it is not the end-all solution. Many people are deciding to get certified in different programs to advance their career or acquire additional job security in hopes of bringing more value to their current employer.”

Therefore, to summarize, we’ve provided two different perspectives with a long-standing debate between technical work experience versus certifications. Although the feeling is that most technical hiring managers would prefer a combination of both, if we had to choose one or the other, the general consensus from our IT recruiters is that there is no substitute for experience.


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AVID (Applications, Voice, Internet, Data) Technical Resources is a leading Information Technology recruiting company. Specializing in placing contract and permanent personnel in both Infrastructure Support and Applications Development positions, AVID has a national presence supporting clients ranging from small businesses to Fortune 100 companies. Headquartered in Boston, MA, AVID has achieved tremendous growth since the firm's inception in 2003. This has triggered numerous national awards and recognition, such as being named to Inc. 500 Magazine's list of 5,000 Fastest Growing Privately-held Companies in the US in 2010, 2011 and 2013. Additionally, the firm boasts of having more than 100 five-star reviews on Google from clients and candidates who rave about their experience and interaction with the firm's recruiters.