Should university students focus on getting top marks or workplace experience? Two employers and two recruiters share their views.

Melanie Burgess, Careers deputy editor, News Corp Australia Network

What is more important in a university graduate: strong grades or practical experience?

That is a question many students ponder but career experts say it depends on the situation.

While the major graduate employment programs often set a minimum grade point average (GPA), employers hiring for one-off, graduate-level roles may be more interested in strong references than university transcripts.

Different industries have different perspectives, too.

Recruitment, Consulting and Staffing Association of Australia (RCSA) chief executive Charles Cameron says outside of large-scale graduate recruitment programs, the value weighting of academic results has been diluted over the past 10 years.

“It’s still important but soft skills are becoming increasingly important,” he says.

“(Employers want) someone who will stay within the role and (who) is going to be more productive more quickly.

“When we see individuals who have placed themselves into real-life working environments and engaged with others in the workplace under pressure, recruiters are increasingly finding their clients are less likely to ask about academic results.

“(Even in a formal graduate program,) the academic result may assist you to get the interview but the experience and application of skills in the workplace will be more likely to get you the job.”

He recommends soon-to-be graduates reach out to recruiters to find agency work – also known as temping, contracting or labour hire – and gain experience related to their field of study.

“Working in an office environment is very different to working in a hospitality environment, for example,” he says.

“Sometimes you need to look people in the eye and see the pressure they are under to understand what the job truly is.”

Outplacement Australia director Gillian Kelly says a student’s GPA is more relevant in some industries than others.

“Some (employers) don’t look at anyone with below a 5 or 5.5 (out of 7),” she says.

“In the professional services, law, medicine and engineering, they certainly look at GPA but if you are in advertising or marketing perhaps they look more favourably at experience.”

Taurus Marketing founder and chief executive Sharon Williams has been hiring people for the past 25 years and says she does not ask for GPAs.

“At university level, I look at their overall degree, whether it’s their first, did they work, were they members of clubs?” she says.

“If you have got someone with a top grade but they did nothing but study for four years that’s not a particularly well-rounded individual.”

Williams says students are better off spending their time interning and getting first-hand experience of a career in their chosen field.

A survey of 150 recent IT graduates by financial technology firm Iress reveals almost a third (31 per cent) wish they had more hands-on experience prior to starting their first job.

I think more opportunities to learn on the job would have been really valuable – giving me a taste of professional life as well as learning industry best practices.

Liam Johnston
Graduate Engineer

Iress chief executive Andrew Walsh is calling on the Australian Government to back a national IT apprenticeship scheme as a more practical alternative to the university pathway for certain IT roles.

“We could take on a school leaver now and develop and train them but when they decide to work for someone else that experience may not be recognised and that’s why (we would like to see) the apprenticeship system,” he says.

Walsh says Iress does look at grades when hiring for its graduate roles but they are not the only factor considered.

“Someone that has practical work experience could be as applied as the person with HDs (high distinctions) without work experience,” he says.

Iress graduate software engineer Liam Johnston says he noticed a large gap between the skills he had gained while studying his Bachelor of Science, majoring in Computer Science, and the knowledge he was assumed to have when he started at the company.

“Unfortunately formal workplace experience was not available to me at university,” he says.

“I think more opportunities to learn on the job would have been really valuable – giving me a taste of professional life as well as learning industry best practices.

“I think employers would benefit too by having access to more competent graduates who can hit the ground running.”

Johnston believes IT apprenticeships should not replace IT degrees but that they could be particularly useful in areas such as cloud computing.

“These skills are rapidly advancing and a more agile teaching methodology might be a better approach,” he says.

“The big three cloud providers all provide their own accreditation programs which could tie in well with an apprenticeship in this area.”

This article originally appeared in NewsCorp newspapers nationally.