For Organizations

When Experience Gets in the Way


One of the most cherished metrics in the workplace is “years-of-experience”. It has long been taken for granted for hiring and promotion, but it should no longer be. We hold onto years-of-experience because, as with so much in hiring and work, it was a useful indicator in the past. In the past, when one’s work domain (industry, field, trade, etc) was relatively stable, years-of-experience guaranteed a greater familiarity and dexterity with the materials, knowledge and expertise of a particular role. Today, that stability rarely exists.

The Past Isn’t the Future

In some science and engineering fields, the pace of change is so rapid that 50% of what college graduates learn is obsolete 2 years after they graduate. Nearly every industry and sector has experienced something of the same. Even farming today is heavily driven by technology and requires new skills and adaptation of workers to be effective and remain competitive. No industry is immune to this pace of progress.

So if our workplaces are changing so rapidly, should years-of-experience in the old world still signal greater potential in the new one? I don’t believe it should and here’s why.

Bolt vs the Weekender

Years-of-experience as a metric has always been imperfect. But whenever its predictions failed those people were considered unique outliers–think of Alexander the Great or Mozart. A more modern example is Usain Bolt. Many of us have been running longer than Usain Bolt, but none of us are better at it. The reactions–read excuses–that people have to this claim reveal the problem with years-of-experience. Some people say, “Oh yes, but Bolt is younger–and people can run faster when they’re young.” Or, “Bolt has had the benefit of more training.” Or, “His genetics are better than mine.”

All true. However, all of these elements also influence a person’s intelligence, creativity, and problem solving ability. And what else is the knowledge economy really about?

Candidates who have more experience in the future will be better suited to a role intended to operate within it.

Not Every Year Equals 365 Days

I’m making a subtle distinction here. I’m not saying that we should throw out everyone over 50 and bring in teenagers. I’m arguing that years-of-experience is, by itself, an insufficient metric for making hiring decisions. There is no guarantee that years-of-experience represents greater ability to solve a particular set of problems. One candidate may have 12 years-of-experience and another 15. But the one with only 12 may have gained more wisdom, knowledge and future-relevant skills compared to the other. Some people skate by at work, others pour themselves into new learning and organizational improvement. Time in the seat doesn’t represent learning or adaptation.

Unlike wine, when people age, they’re only guaranteed to get older.

Candidates who have more experience in the future may be better suited to a role intended to operate within it. Next time you’re hiring, evaluate candidates more holistically. Suppress your inclination to compare candidates simply by years-of-experience. Focus instead on what problems your organization needs solved today and soon. In nearly every role in every organization, the ability to solve an evolving set of problems should drive hiring decisions.