Experience – It “Ain’t What It Used To Be”

(It’s time to kill the sacred cow of “job experience” in recruiting) Warning – This article will make you think…read on with caution! Recruiters often complain there is a shortage of qualified candidates but a good portion of the “shortage” comes from an over reliance on the number of years of experience a candidate has. OK, calm down and I’ll explain why most “experience” is becoming obsolete!EXPERIENCE – Why is it becoming obsolete? For thousands of years those with the most experience were sought after because with more experience came more useful knowledge. Old “wise men/women” were sought after because their accumulated experience meant a great deal. In the 1990′s that all began to change. As a result of the growth of technology, a world that used to change slowly began to change at “Internet speed.” Information and solutions that had a shelf life of years now became obsolete in months. When you think about it, experience in solving “past problems” is rapidly losing its applicability to current and future problems. Here are some illustrations:

    • Experience in spelling words is nearly obsolete in the world of “spell-checkers”


  • Experience in designing typewriters might have no applicability in the computer age
  • Experience designing a 486 computer chip might have zero transferability in the design of a Pentium II because the technology has changed so much in 3 years
  • Experience doing 1040 tax forms for an accountant might now have zero value when all returns are calculated by a tax software package
  • A car designer with 20 years in car design might find their skills useless in the days of CAD software.

What does it all mean to recruiters?Simply put it means that we can no longer rely on the old adage that “more experience is better” in an applicant. As products and processes change at Internet speed, “the old way” loses value so fast that things done as little as 6 months ago can easily become “history” with no direct value. As a recruiter you need to realize that candidates with 10 years of experience in a brand new field, such as web design, do not exist (because the field is so young). Even experiences these same candidates had 2 years ago using antiquated tools, materials, and processes may now have zero applicability in the world of work! The declining value of experience is even more pronounced in the IT world. Knowing Windows 95 or Lotus 123 may totally lose all value in as little as 3 years. If you own a new Apple computer you already know that the floppy disc is a dinosaur and even the fax machine is becoming extinct. In the field of recruiting itself, some “experience” that may soon have a marginal value might include:

  • Placing newspaper ads in newspapers
  • Writing recruiting brochures
  • Sitting at a booth at a job fair
  • Reading resumes to determine the number of years of experience

You can’t have experience in the future: If your world is changing rapidly (whose isn’t) what people can do in the next few months or year is more important than what they did last year. Asking them how they can/would handle future problems might be a better exercise than counting the years on a resume!Reducing the years of experience increases the candidate pool! If you cut out the “ancient history” experience (over 5 years old) you will find that you get a much larger applicant pool without sacrificing any skills or useful knowledge.Substitute the “level of difficulty” of the problems they can solve for the # of years of experience: I have 20 years of experience playing basketball but a Michael Jordan in high school could probably beat me with 1 year of experience. If you identified the level of competencies/skills you needed (dunking, dribbling with both hands, and blocking shots) and then assessed them in a game, you would quickly find that relying on the number of years of experience can be a serious mistake. Initial Steps To Take:

  1. Reduce (or eliminate) the number of years requirements in your ads and replace them with “the demonstrated ability to solve problems with our required level of difficulty
  2. Use simulations and ask candidates to solve your actual problems in order to assess an applicants ability directly rather than indirectly through their years of experience
  3. Develop “future oriented” interview questions to assess a candidates ability to forecast and solve our “coming” problems
  4. Train and educate managers to put less weight on experience during interviews and more on the candidates ability to solve the actual problems they will encounter in this job
  5. Train and educate recruiters to put less weight on experience during resume screening and more on the candidates results and accomplishments related to the actual problems they will encounter in this job
  6. Train compensation professionals to look less at experience when preparing a job description and more at the complexity and the difficulty of the problems the employee will face. Encourage them to design more pay for performance systems rather than the traditional “pay for experience” approach
  7. Revise job descriptions to include information on the level and difficulty of the problems that they will encounter in the job
  8. Identify (and assess) firms that offer great experience by looking at the top performers in your organization to see which firms and departments the good (and bad) ones came from (by job category). Put a higher weight on this type of experience during the hiring process
  9. Identify the amount and type of experiences that predict success by looking at the type of experiences that your successful performers have had. Put more weight on these types of experiences
  10. Identify competencies (rather than experience) that predict success by looking at your past hires and which competencies the good ones have and the bad ones don’t
  11. Check to see if there is a correlation between the number of years of experience an employee has and their success in your firm. Also see if there is a point where more experience is no longer better.

Additional Reasons That Experience “Stinks”: Using the number of years of experience to screen candidates is one of the sacred cows of employment. It has been used for years but there is little data or proof to show that the stereotype (more experience is always better) is accurate. My advice is to avoid stereotyping and assumptions and look for direct proof. Additional reasons not to rely on experience include:

  1. Performance matters. Experience can’t be judged by the number of years because you can have lots of years of experience at a poor level of performance. If you want to look at experience be sure that performance is factored in. Two years of successful experience is not the same as 2 years with weak or poor performance.
  2. Haven’t done doesn’t mean can’t do. A lack of experience might mean a lack of opportunity rather than a lack of skill or interest. Only by putting the person in the position (a temporary hire) or in a simulation of the problems to be faced can you come close to judging whether someone can actually do something.
  3. Experience has a shelf life. In hi-tech, experience that is over 2 years old may be of no value because the information, tools, and customer expectations change so fast.
  4. Listing something on a resume is not experience. People stretch the truth in resumes. In addition the wide spread use of teams might mean you were “close to ” the action but you never really had any actual responsibility for it. A “word description” of an event you may only have witnessed that is repeated in a resume or a behavioral interview is not evidence of relevant experience or past performance.
  5. Where you get the experience matters. Experience at K-Mart is not usually equivalent with experience at Saks Fifth Avenue. The firm, branch, department, manager, and the time period are all important variables that can’t be ignored.
  6. Experience does not guarantee success. Generally only at the bottom end of the experience scale (where some candidates have no experience) and in cases where there are quantum differences in experience (more “than a 5 year gap”) does the data show that there is a dramatic knowledge or skill difference in candidates with more experience. When the gaps in experience between candidates is in the 1 – 3 year range, there is no value in counting additional experience.
  7. 1 year of experience…repeated over and over – Also remember that you might think you have a candidate with 5 years of experience when in reality you have someone with “one year of experience that was “repeated 5 times” with no learning or skill change!
  8. In some jobs, experience makes no difference – There are always huge exceptions to the old “wives tale” that experience matters in all jobs. When the learning curve is short (less than a month) and tasks are repetitive, as in a hamburger cook, repetition and experience might bring boredom but it does not increase the skill level!
  9. Experience is expensive. As a rule the more experience you demand the more you will pay. There is little data to prove that the more years of experience correlates with performance in most jobs. Run the numbers and find out when experience is worth the money (Ex. – a french fry cooker at an automated machine may take 1 day to learn. Improvement in performance does not come with more months of experience. So hiring a person with 2 years of automated frying may result in no change in performance but a higher salary costs). Don’t assume experience is worth it, track the learning curve at your firm for all key jobs and see if the extra pay is worth it.
  10. More might be bad. There may be a point where too much experience may actually mean diminished skills or motivation. A football player with 20 years of experience might no longer be physically or mentally ready to perform. Don’t assume more is better when it comes to experience.
  11. Give applicants a “heads up” on the experiences you need. HR needs to be more specific up front in your ads/web pages about what specific experiences you need. This allows candidates to self select out (don’t apply) or to tailor their cover letter or resume to your experience needs.
  12. New technology makes learning easier and faster. A skill (typing) that used to take months to develop might take only weeks now that spellchecker, grammar and other desktop tools are available to all.
  13. Seniority means more years of experience not more performance.Customers don’t buy products because experienced people worked on them. They buy them because they are better and cheaper. Experience almost always means more expensive so be able to prove experience also leads to increases in quality and productivity!
  14. Experience may mean “old ways and ideas.” People that have developed habits over years often are reluctant to change their behavior. If your firm needs new ways of acting or new ideas hiring and retaining more experienced people might, in some cases, prohibit you from getting the change you need.

The Evidence Is In – (Previous) experience does not predict future performance A recent study by Schmidt and Hunter (1998) confirms what other studies have found. That is that the number of years of experience does not predict performance! It ranks poorly at number 9 out of 12 (correlation .18) It was well behind honesty tests, unstructured interviews, and reference checks in validity (work sample tests was #1). Years of education fared even worse; they were rated at the bottom! Education Ain’t What It Used To Be Either! Because information and tools change so rapidly, academic degrees also now have a rapidly diminishing shelf life. At San Francisco State University we have determined that the technical knowledge gained in a HR degree program has no residual value after 4 years! As a result, recruiters need to consider “aging” degrees in technical fields because a 10-year-old degree in IT should really be renamed to “a history of technology degree!”

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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