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“Must Have 5+ Years Experience” Fallacy

I originally wrote this article in Spring 2002 — during a long and painful bout of unemployment). I have more up-to-date thoughts on the topic which I will  post eventually.

Why does every job ad require 5 years of experience? What does this mean anyway?

5 years experience with the same job title? That is a sign the employer is not looking for competence, but stability and aversion to risk.

5 years in the same field? So does time in school count? How about times when you were unemployed and working on portfolios/personal projects?

5 years experiencing using the tool, (programming language, platform)? First, no sane individual uses a single tool for every task on the job, and an individual who does so tends to view business problems in a reductionist way. A person with 5 years experience using Robohelp tends to view every problem as a Robohelp problem. Second, anyone who uses a product for that long a time could be using an out-of-date version. Or they can be in the habit of using high-priced commercial tools instead of free open source tools.

Having the technical competence of a typical person with 5 years experience? If that’s the case, then what about the person with 6 months experience who can do pretty cool things? What about someone with 5 years experience using a different tool but minimally competent on this one? At some point you are concerned more with an individual’s potential to do good work than what he has done (and that is good, isn’t it?)

I’ve always felt that the hardest job skills could be learned by the right person in 2 years or less. So, by demanding 5 years experience, you run the risk of hiring someone purely on the basis of the historical accident of whether they’ve worked at a company using a commercial tool. Employers would like to think that skills can be assessed simply by number of years at the post. They’d like to think that most people can obtain the jobs they are suited for, and that job titles are relatively uniform across the industry. But job titles (especially in technical fields) can be misleading. Requiring “5 years experience” may simply result in weeding out the younger candidates most in touch with new ways of doing things. In the writing profession, proficiency and even ability increases with age. As a 36 year old, I’ve been writing seriously since my senior year at college (when I was 22). That’s 14 years of experience. But on a writing project, a talented writer with three years of experience could have probably done just as good a job.

What alternative do I suggest? Employers should focus on skills necessary for the job, not simply seniority. By “skills,” I mean general skills, not simply familiarity with proprietary applications. If you limit your pool of applicants only to those whose previous employer used a particular application, you are reducing your pool of applicants (and probably having to pay high prices for it too). Oracle is completely different from SQL Server, but a person who worked as a database administrator on one of them could probably pick up the other in no time at all. The same is true for programming. I won’t deny that programming is hard, and that the good programmer is ten times more productive than the mediocre programmer. But a good programmer is not necessary the one who can program in the most languages. Once you learn basic concepts very well, the choice of tool, platform or programming language is almost irrelevant. Therefore, employers should write job descriptions that allow for a diversity of backgrounds rather than insisting on a specific job title or familiarity with a specific tool. Every job description ad should include three parts: Requirements, Highly Recommended and Nice to Have. In some areas (like management), seniority does indicate a level of experience working with different types of human interactions. But in technological fields, seniority is mostly irrelevant. After all, napster was started by someone under the age of 20 and the world’s first graphical browser was written by someone still in college.

Another way to tackle the skills problem is to look at an ability to complete projects or master new challenges. Accomplishments and innovation should be more important than number of years with a job title. True, a person with 5 years experience at a job may face many challenges that make him/her a better worker. But a person without the job title may have faced similiar challenges in different professional contexts. By allowing the second kind of applicant into the job pool, you are making it easier to find the best candidate at the lowest possible price.

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