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  • Writer's pictureVal Agnew

The "Years of Experience" Paradox

I look at job listings nearly every day. Firstly, because I'm always keeping an eye out just in case something interesting comes along. But also because if I'm going to help other people find jobs or tailor their resumes and cover letters to maximize their potential for a response, I need to understand what job listings look like and how the expectations of companies are changing over time.

There are the obvious updates like proficiencies in software or processes that didn't exist a few years ago. Or comfort with working remotely. There are industries that have just emerged, like cannabis. Or roles that have taken on a new prominence, like content marketing. But one constant seems to be so ingrained that it may never go away, as much as I wish it would: Years of Experience.

Just about every job description includes at least one mention of years of experience. Sometimes there is one per line, meaning you have to have a certain number of years using each skill required for success in a role. Even the most progressive companies that have flexible PTO, enlightened parental leave policies, and dedicated DEI teams still insist you have a particular amount of experience.

To some degree, it makes some sense. A number is an easy way to narrow down a pool quickly. And in a world where more and more companies are utilizing applicant tracking systems, which are basically databases that allow for querying for specific criteria among pools of applicants, it is helpful to be able to have numbers and keywords that assist in filtering. However, efficient isn't the same as effective. I would argue that years of experience are among the worst ways to measure someone's potential for success. This number tells us nothing about the quality of that time. The amount they learned. The amount they contributed. The relationship they had with their team or their manager. Someone might be really good at just remaining in place for years and years, but making absolutely no positive impact on a workplace.

I am particularly biased about this topic because, to put it mildly, I have a pretty peculiar resume. I have worked in several different industries for short-ish amounts of time, with varying titles and umbrellas of responsibilities. While I could absolutely make a case for myself in a well-crafted cover letter, it's hard to compete with someone who has held a single role for five years with the same title they are applying for. And that's even assuming that the recruiter or hiring manager reads the cover letter at all, which they often don't (that's an article for a different day) So yes, this is a me problem. But it isn't only a me problem.

First let's address the most blatantly ridiculous expectation of years of experience: The entry level job. The definition of an entry level job is that it is your ENTRY into a role and company. It is your ENTRY into the workforce. How, then, are you meant to have 3-5 years of experience already? It would be one thing if the listing said "1-2 internships in related fields" or something to that effect. But 3-5 years experience for a job that is, by definition, meant to be your first job or among your first jobs, is unfair at its core.

Requiring years of experience is also going to inherently narrow the pool of applicants, but not in the way one might hope. A pretty famous study showed that women tend to apply to jobs only when they meet 100% of the criteria in the job description, while men will apply as long as they meet at least 60% of the same criteria. Meaning that the more specific the criteria, the more likely you are to have fewer women applicants. And that's not even taking into account the fact that women are much more likely to leave the workforce to care for dependents than men, meaning that if they eventually hope to re-enter, they have fewer years of experience while still in every other way being stellar applicants.

Additionally, it is already harder for BIPOC applicants to even get their first job, as they have countless added hurdles as ridiculous as people being biased toward their name or finding their hair unprofessional in an interview. So it is also inherently unfair to compare folks who have had every opportunity to get the expected years of experience against those who have to work twice as hard to get half as far.

In short, the concept of Years of Experience removes any and all context, which cheapens every single applicant's qualifications and all but ensures an inequitable start to the recruiting process.

So how can hirers still narrow a pool without narrowing it unfairly? Here are some ideas:

  • Remove years of experience from all entry level jobs - Period.

  • Better value internal candidates - so many companies have strange policies in place that actually put internal applicants (meaning people who already work at a company) at a disadvantage when they apply for a job. Either they will be paid significantly less than an external applicant or will miss out on other bonus or benefit potential. However, if someone works at your company already, you know exactly what their experience means and you can get so much more information than you could from a stranger's application.

  • Take employee referrals more seriously - Similar to the previous point, someone who is recommended by an employee inherently comes with more detailed and accurate information about their experience.

  • Add a caveat to a job description that says "Even if you don't meet all the requirements please still apply. We are interested in hearing from you." - some companies already do this and I know its effect on me is positive. I instantly feel more confident that I will get a more fair consideration despite my unusual resume

  • Allow applicants to self-report years of experience for specific skills - I've also seen this on applications. Self-identifying years of experience is going to be more accurate than a stranger eyeballing bullet points on a resume. And it doesn't really make sense to lie, because it can be easily verified using one's resume.

  • For skills, add the caveat "or willingness to learn." - An applicant may never have been afforded the opportunity to learn how to use a particular project management software or CRM, but that doesn't mean they don't have a willingness or ability to learn it. An openness to learn new things is a positive quality in an applicant by my estimation.

  • Ask questions about how applicants would handle a particular situation or challenge as part of the application - I have also seen this before and think it's great. It illustrates potential to learn or address relevant topics to a job, which is far more informative and useful

  • Ask for better numbers - What if we asked how many times someone has had to learn and use a new software or how many times they had to independently resolve a problem for a client or how many outputs in a week they are capable of doing on average? These are specific, and likely more relevant numbers than years in a job.

  • Ask for references - even if you never reach out to them, if someone is willing to provide references means they aren't ashamed of their experience. And actually contacting references can obviously add context and color to what experience an applicant does have.

Pretty much all of these suggestions--and this is not a comprehensive list, just some that came to mind for me--will mean more time for recruiters or hiring managers to sift through applications and will probably add more time to the entire recruiting process. However it is a lot cheaper to hire the right person once than to have to replace them because you were in a rush the first time. And when a person feels seen as early as the job description phase, their entire candidate experience will be better, which gives you better odds that they will be excited to do their job well. And that's all we really want right? Someone who wants to do their job well.

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