How Many Years’ Experience Should Recruiters and Employers Ask For?

April 27, 2017

When recruiting, do you think the most experienced applicant is likely to be the best job candidate?

Most people would believe that work experience has some relationship with job performance. Why else would experience be requested on job descriptions and adverts? If you are one of these people, you may be happy to know that research over the last 40 years suggests there is a positive relationship between experience and job performance.

That said, the results of some experiments (even as far back as the late 80’s) might surprise you.

In 1988, psychologists McDaniel, Schmidt and Hunter published a paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology exploring the relationship between experience and job performance. Their study concluded that jobs with low levels of complexity (defined by the cognitive difficulty of the role’s tasks and responsibilities) typically require no more than three years’ experience for individuals to succeed. For these roles (usually more junior and less technical), more than three years’ experience in a role led to lower correlations with performance.

So, jobs with more complexity need more experience, right?

Not necessarily.

The psychologists found the same trend, in fact, lower correlations, for the more cognitively complex jobs. This is because there are of course more formal higher educational opportunities for people to learn the knowledge and skills associated with more technical positions. The workplace has obviously evolved since the 80s, but this trend has been demonstrated in research as recently as 2016.

This conclusion might feel a bit odd. After all, I did say that research has shown there is a correlation between experience and job performance. But we’re overlooking a fundamental characteristic of job performance that should make us seriously question this statement.

When you are measuring performance at work, you are looking at the impact of technical knowledge and behavioural skill on KPIs and goals. Experience merely means the amount of opportunity someone has had to develop these abilities. The research I mentioned earlier treated experience and skill as the same thing (that’s why there was a positive correlation with job performance). But they are not the same. When we are trying to recruit someone into a role, we assume that someone’s experience tells us something about their levels of technical knowledge and behavioural skills. Our assumptions here could easily be wrong.

Consider this scenario: one candidate for a sales role has been delivering presentations to prospective customers for five years. Another candidate has been doing the same activity (in the same industry and type of role) for just one year. Which candidate is better at delivering presentations and converting prospects into sales?

If you said the more experienced candidate, you are making an assumption about their level of ability for which you actually have no concrete evidence. The person with five years’ experience may have a low conversion rate because of poor persuasive communication skills. She/he may have even delivered fewer presentations in that time (e.g. one every six weeks) than the person who has been doing it for a year (e.g. one every week).

The answer to the number of years’ worth of experience, for which you should look, is therefore simple and obvious. You should not be looking for an amount of experience at all.

Instead, you should be evaluating tangible evidence of technical skill and behavioural competence. Sourcing and application processes can still look at relevance of experience, but you should not treat it as evidence of ability or knowledge. In fact, even relevance of experience may not be necessary if it is easy for someone to learn technical knowledge on the job (in which case, looking for evidence of learning agility is more effective).

So, here’s the practical advice: try using a more valid and less time-consuming method of initial assessment than resume / CV screening, such as a psychometric test. Bespoke or ready-to-use tests of aptitude, technical knowledge and behavioural judgement / preference are options available to you.

This will make you less likely to indirectly discriminate against younger people who don’t have as much experience as other candidates. You also won’t accidentally sift out the best talent purely because they’ve had less specific experience. In turn, you may find yourself recruiting a more diverse workforce, and more accurately predicting performance.

Jordon Jones is a Senior Consultant at PSI Talent Measurement.

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