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The "Five Years Experience Required" Fallacy

ReWork BookI’ve recently finished “ReWork“, the excellent story of 37Signals, the company behind the Blog of the same name, the inventors of the Ruby on Rails programming language and provider of Basecamp, the world’s most popular Project Management software for SMB’s. I love their business model; they believe passionately in building an audience rather than paying for your attention and they give away their best advice for free, most of which is summarised in the book.

It’s a great read for anyone, but there is an excellent section on Hiring that includes a one-page chapter called “What does 5 Years Experience Mean Anyway”. If you’re a recruiter or a hiring manager, you NEED to read the following extract:

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“We’ve all seen job ads that say “Five years of experience required.” That may give you a number, but it tells you nothing.
Of course, requiring some baseline level of experience can be a good idea when hiring. It makes sense to go after candidates with six months to a year of experience. It takes that long to internalise the idioms, learn how things work, understand the relevant tools, etc.
But after that, the curve flattens out. There’s surprisingly little difference between a candidate with six months of experience and one with six years. The real difference comes from the individual’s dedication, personality and intelligence”


The day after I read this chapter I was training a team of agency recruiters on how to search for candidates. I always ask for live job requisitions and ask the recruiters to break down the real requirements of the role, the “must-haves”, before we start to research synonyms and build a search string that can be applied to multiple databases (LinkedIn, Monster, Jobsite, Jobserve, their ATS, etc etc). Sure enough, “3 years experience” was touted as a requirement, as defined by the recruiter’s client.  On top of that was a long list of technical requirements such as .net development experience, experience with,  a sql and ajax background in addition to experience in an agile development environment and knowledge of mvc’s.

So, I asked, if we tick all of the other boxes but the person only has 18 months experience, will the client not interview the candidate? Of course they will, they’d bite their arm off for a chance to consider them.

3 years or 5 years or 7 years experience; they’re all nonsense. They’re a traditional HR concept, aligned to remuneration and compensation frameworks that are more suited to the public sector than the real world. I imagine even a public sector employer wouldn’t hesitate to interview a candidate who had all the skills but lacked the magic number of years required.

Writing a Job SpecI spent 13 years as an agency recruiter before I had to hire people who actually worked for me. I have hired plenty of people who worked under me at a company that employed me, but it wasn’t until 2011 that I had to actually employ people to work for me! With all my years experience in assessment, writing job specs etc, what did I do? I hired bright people. People with the ability to achieve amazing things but who didn’t necessarily have the experience behind them. This is what hiring managers want, people who can do, not people who have managed to hold on long enough to make it to our 3 or 5 year benchmark.

Hiring Managers: stop specifying number of years as a requirement, start thinking about what the ideal candidate needs to be capable of and how much evidence you need of that ability.

Recruiters: find brilliant people who can do the job. Unlike an Ikea instruction manual, the job spec does not have to be followed by wrote, do your job and solve problems. Push back on hiring managers and clients to really understand their needs and requirements. Test assumptions, offer alternatives and build a really clear picture of what “perfect” looks like before you pick up a phone, type a single word into LinkedIn or your ATS or write a single job advertisement. Garbage in = Garbage out.

I can teach any recruiter to be brilliant at search in less than 8 hours but if you’re looking for the wrong things, nobody can help you.

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