Why I’d always choose an applicant with experience over qualifications

Why are more and more graduate employers looking beyond academic qualifications? We spoke to serial entrepreneur Duncan Cheatle to get his view
Application advice

Duncan Cheatle is the co-founder of Start-Up Britain and the Social Enterprise Challenge. His new initiative Rise To is an online career accelerator, a learning platform and community that connects employers with enterprising Millennials from all backgrounds. 

We spoke to Duncan about the importance of work and life experience, his own journey in the workplace and the future of graduate recruitment.

Why are you such a big advocate of young people gaining experience outside of academia?

It feels as though, over time, there has been more and more pressure on young people to focus on their studies and their exam results. 

There’s no doubt that those offering this advice, whether parents, teachers or whoever, mean well, but the adverse effect is that students haven’t always been encouraged to go out and try their hand at different things. 

There are lots of qualities or attributes that potentially make someone a great employee that can’t necessarily be written on a CV; I call these the intangibles.

Of course it’s important to have good grades, but they need to be supported by real-life experience. Having one without the other is a bit like a diet where you only eat carbohydrates – it’s not enough to sustain you.

What sort of work experience should young people be looking for?

I think that any form of professional experience is valuable – even if it’s not directly related to your long-term career path.  

Above all, work experience is a way of working out what you want to do (and what you don’t), understanding your strengths and weaknesses, and developing the self-awareness that comes with that. This will prove extremely useful when it comes to applying for graduate roles – you’ll be able to talk about yourself with conviction and explain why you really want that dream job.

Looking back over the past 25 years, I think I've worked in over 100 different roles, doing all sorts of jobs. From a very early age I worked on my aunt’s farm, delivering milk; I temped my way through university; and, before the age of 21, I had worked in a garage and in the head office of a large marketing company.

I very quickly got a feel for what these different industries were about and for what suited me. It’s amazing how this insight transforms the way you see the world; you figure out the kind of work you enjoy and gain soft skills along the way – you become ‘work wise’.

Students might not think that working in a restaurant or on a shop floor is relevant to graduate employers; speaking as an employer myself, I can tell them with confidence that it is.

Do you think the attitudes of larger graduate employers have changed in recent years?

I started my graduate career at PwC, then moved to a smaller company and finally started my own business, so I've seen both sides of the coin.

I think that the larger employers are becoming increasingly open minded and are starting to place less emphasis on exam results. A few years ago, Grant Thornton, the large accountancy firm, initiated a recruitment drive that minimised the importance of academic qualifications. 

The thinking is that academic results are more accurate indicators of social background than of capability in the workplace. 

Other companies have started to follow suit, including PwC and EY. During my own time at PwC in the nineties, the firm realised that its most successful employees, the ones who were making partner, tended to be those who hadn't had taken the traditional path into the profession. They weren’t necessarily the people who’d achieved straight As all the way through school. 

In fact, PwC re-designed its graduate admissions exams to be able to test for soft skills as well as academic ability.

Is this a sign of things to come?

I definitely feel that it is a sign of where things are headed. The challenge for employers is finding ways to look beyond academic qualifications and to evaluate potential graduate hires based on other relevant criteria. 

With sites like Rise To this is becoming easier. The website allows employers to search for candidates based on things like soft skills and shared values; it’s no longer the case where employers have to determine someone’s career prospects on whether they got a 2:1 at university or three As at A-Level. 

Ultimately, we are all the sum of our various experiences. My advice to any young person today would be to spend your money on experiences, not on assets. 

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