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The experience paradox

I am sure that I am not alone in making an effort to keep abreast of what jobs are being posted within what can largely be termed my field, and am struck by the paradox represented by requiring relevant experience for most jobs, even entry-level positions. For example, I have seen my share of highly educated people cycle through a support department on their way to the jobs they’ve educated themselves towards – usually software development – in an effort to gain “relevant experience”.

While I am certainly not saying that developers wouldn’t be well served by understanding the perspectives of end users, working end user support for six to twelve months isn’t likely to do in that. It will, however, very likely dull the skillset that the candidate has gained through their studies. This seems a waste, not only for the candidate, but also for the business that ends up hiring them, getting an employee with supposedly relevant experience whose skills are less relevant than they were a year previously.

I’m seeing a similar trend when it comes to positions involving HR responsibilities; training in the field and an ability to describe leadership strategies and their applications are deemed to be less relevant than experience as a manager, and I know of at least one example where highly formally qualified candidates were beaten by far less qualified candidates with a smattering of experience – to disastrous effect for the department in question.

This, then, is the paradox as I see it: how can you get experience if you don’t already have experience?

Now, while limiting the candidate pool may be a desired outcome, it is important to be aware that research seems to indicate that it is likely to disproportionately limit the number of female applicants. Established in an internal report (apparently unpublished) from HP, and appearing to be confirmed in a study performed by Tara Mohr.

What employers can do

First and foremost, bring candidates who may lack experience in for interviews, give them a chance to show you that they are worth hiring. Expanding your candidate pool like this will mean that your chance of finding the best candidate is higher, even though the cost of interviewing more candidates in the first round of interviews will be higher, too

Unpaid internships are, in my opinion, something that should only be offered as part of an educational programme, and even then, they should be used very sparingly; if you are taking someone on in your company, they should be paid for their time. Another tactic is to hire for attitude, and valuing desire to learn and grow as much as you value experience. While that may be a risk, the rewards are many, and include employees who know that their employer is interested in taking a chance on them.

If you’ve got applicants within the company who are interested in taking a new step career-wise, you might want to let them step into the role for a while – say three to six months – to get some experience, and to see if they are a good fit for the role. Naturally, doing so would also mean that you ensure that these employees get the opportunity to learn the skills they might lack, either through formal education, through mentorship, or through a combination of these. You owe that, not only to your employee who is going out on a limb, but also to the people who will report to them.

What candidates can do

Troubling as these trends are – and I think they are highly troubling – we can hardly expect employers to change simply because we complain about it. Moreover, complaining about it – cathartic though it may be – will not help us. What we can do, what I believe we should do, is to make sure to take any opportunity to attend training, to take responsibility, and to grow personally. With a bit of luck – and a lot of hard work – we just may hope to reduce this problem for coming generations.

If you’re going to object that it wasn’t that easy for you, so why should you help make it easier for others, I have a few things to say. First, your life is easier than it was for previous generations, you owe it to them to pay it forward. Second, while your individual contribution may not be all that big, a very small contribution is always 100% better than no contribution at all. Third, in the words of Arleen Lorrance: be the change you want to see happen.

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