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I am involved in a hiring process for system engineers. We are looking for people with several years experience and company is ready to invest a lot in bringing the right people up-to-speed.

Now the problem is that due to work specifics (clearances, niche work-area), it is easily 6 months after hiring that the new person will be allowed to work on anything more than simple tasks. From the past hiring experience, it takes about 1-1.5 years a until the new person can operate somewhat independently within his area of responsibility and expertise.

This does not go well with a lot of new hires. As we are hiring people with several years experience, they are all very confident that they are ready to dive-in and solve "all the world's problems" straight away. As you can guess, their enthusiasm goes down the drain after joining and seeing that it will take long time for them to be given serious tasks.

So my question is what would be good questions to ask a potential candidate to see how they handle long learning curves? Or what are the most obvious red-flags? We are very open about the realities of the job. Note that new hires are being paid full salary straight away after joining.

EDIT: To clarify some of the questions:

  • We are hiring people with general knowledge in X (Radio communication, IT security, EMI/EMF compatibility, mechanical engineering, etc.) and then we teach them what is required to work in our field. We teach them change management, configuration management, requirements management and similar disciplines, because it is extremely rare to find people with working knowledge in above fields.

  • New hire starts on simple tasks straight away, have a buddy and constant hand-holding from peers and HR. They are not sitting on their hands. We give them more responsibility as they progress, but it still takes time before they can work fully independently.

  • Clearances is only part of the equation (which takes time). Another part is that for them to function independently, they need to know how to follow the processes, most of which are dictated by the industry norms.

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    You should focus more on streamlining your learning curve, 6 months sitting on your hands is a wasted engineer. – Kilisi Feb 21 at 11:03
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    Not just wasted engineer, it's a broken process. Fix that rather than trying to figure out a way to frame it nicely. – Tymoteusz Paul Feb 21 at 11:10
  • Whereas I agree with the comments, it's likely that the OP cannot influence the necessary changes in the company to fix the broken process. – Charmander Feb 21 at 11:18
  • @Kilisi we do the best we can, but obtaining clearances for new hires is time consuming. Before clearing that, there is no way they can be put them on customer projects and show all the relevant docs. – jpou Feb 21 at 11:44
  • Please edit your question to clarify. You are hiring people with specialty skills. Is it common for people in that specialty to take a long time to learn when they join a new company? Or is this a problem unique to your company? – O. Jones Feb 21 at 12:10
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I'll change the approach to the problem. I don't think it's about asking the right questions to see if your candidates will adapt and be patient for over a year or if they will quit.

We are very open about the realities of the job.

This is the best way to understand if they would be able to deal with this long "learning curve". If you are open and explain how it works at your company, and why, then they will be able to make an informed decision, and in theory, their enthusiasm won't go down the drain, since they know what they are getting into. You can always ask if they had worked in companies with long learning curves before, of course, but as you said, it's quite uncommon.

Try to share successful cases of people who managed to get past the learning curve.

Be as open and as transparent as possible. In a way, it will discourage some candidates from joining, but that's way cheaper than hiring someone who quits after a few months.

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  • +1. There are people for whom learning and being challenged is a (strong) motivator. I'm one of them. – Jan Dorniak Feb 23 at 23:05
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I think you are hiring the wrong people.

With a year plus 6 months minimum to get up to speed you don't need engineers with years of experience. Their experience must mostly be irrelevant to the job.

You should be targeting new engineers and training them. For instance I work some niche fields with high security which are unique in this locale. I much prefer a new graduate to train then an experienced engineer, precisely because their experience isn't worth as much for the needed tasks as the training I can provide. The tasks are complex and no engineer in the country would have worked on similar ones.

In a year and a half starting at the bottom and working slowly up I would think they're just competent to continue on their own and all their experience is directly relevant.

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  • Totally agree - this is what we try to do. However, a lot of new graduates are already with some experience in fast moving industry and burn their finger, when see that a feature that they developed gets pushed into production maybe 6-9 months later. – jpou Feb 21 at 12:54

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