By Marcus Leach

As thousands of school-leavers start the hunt for jobs, or head off to higher education, a study into employability has found that dream careers are served by experience, not just qualifications.

The study from the Ambition AXA Awards for talented young people, supported by Young Enterprise, found that many employers are assessing work experience as a major contributing factor to employment alongside - and in some cases above - traditional qualifications.

More than half (57 per cent) of employers think it’s important for employees to have relevant work experience before starting employment, and more than one in ten believe it is vital.

In fact for many, strong relevant work experience is so valuable to employers that they would place more importance on it than on A Levels: almost a third (31 per cent) would value it as highly in a candidate as two A Levels, while 26 per cent would compare it with one A Level.

Moreover, nearly two-thirds (61 per cent) of employers believe that work experience is becoming more important.

Top reasons cited include candidate differentiation, life skills, and less meaningful qualifications: 58 per cent believe it helps to differentiate between candidates (indeed, 34 per cent believe it is harder to get work experience today so those that have it benefit), 37 per cent say new employees aren’t getting the relevant life experience required for work without it, 36 per cent say educational qualifications are becoming less meaningful as more people get higher grades.

A whopping 59 per cent of employers do not believe graduates are equipped with appropriate work skills when leaving education. This rises to 83 per cent in Northern Ireland, and drops to the lowest (53 per cent) in the East Midlands.

Perhaps this explains why the rising costs of tertiary education on the quality of future employees are not considered particularly relevant: the majority said they were not really concerned, and 15 per cent admitted they do not rely on university qualifications.

Indeed, experience, personality and a willingness to learn are all worth more to employers than qualifications. When asked to consider those entry-level hires made in the last two years, personality outweighed all others: 37 per cent versus just 10 per cent who look at educational qualifications. Personality and experience at work or in the sector were the three most important considerations, while qualifications or simply urgency to fill the post made the bottom of the rankings table.

“Finding work is increasingly tough these days, and what we’re seeing is that employers are after a more rounded ‘package’," Catherine Marchant, Director of Young Enterprise, said.

"They’re increasingly looking for staff who have experience in the workplace — and the right attitude towards business — rather than their academic qualifications alone.

"This bodes well for the ambitious: those who show passion and dedication for something - and are willing to work hard for it, getting work experience in the field - are the ones who will end up excelling in their dream job.”

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