Experience or Paper qualification?

In a recent interaction with accomplished engineers, I was asked an interesting question. Which is more important, paper qualifications or experience? Some may choose paper qualification and others may choose experience.

20 years ago, in Singapore, a diploma was known to be considerable tertiary education and training. A diploma meant something in the 1990’s. Even with an “O”-levels education, an individual would likely be able to secure a job with decent career prospects. It’s year 2015 and even university graduates are sometimes underemployed. Setting aside the quality of the degree and training given by each university, a diploma has lost its market value over the years. So is paper qualification important? Partially yes.

The paper qualification does make an impact. But experience is still king. Take project management career for example. A person who is able to complete a small project with a value of 1 million dollars within time, budget and quality might not have the capability to complete a 100 million dollars project due to lack of experience. The paper qualifications might make it easier for him to understand what is required to lead and complete the project but without proper guidance from experienced staff, the person might not be fully equipped to complete the project. The same goes for more technical positions.

A combination of paper qualifications with proper understanding coupled with valuable experience allows the person to be more versatile when compared to a person with only paper qualification or experience. But the most important factor is in the understanding that learning is a lifelong process and something that does not stop once a person graduates with a certificate.