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On every, or nearly every job listing I've seen, a primary qualification of the job is listed as "X-Y years of experience". When was younger, this was frustrating since I thought that my skill outpaced my experience. This is not uncommon. These days, it is frustrating because I interview people with the needed years of experience, but are completely unqualified for the job.

During a somewhat unrelated search, I ran across this old article which pulls together information from books I had forgotten to serve as evidence that simply put: computer programmers' years of experience do not correlate to performance or skill.

So why still use it as a criteria? Who knows. Momentum is the likely answer, but it will vary from place to place.

Regardless to the reason, HR people still need some criteria to judge candidates without being experts in the field. I figure that there must be other (more mature?) fields where this sort of non-correlation exists since it's not particularly specific to computer programmers.

So, long story short: how do HR departments filter applications when they don't have expertise in the field, and years of experience is no sign of competence?

  • @djechlin - we can still get software because good programmers are way better than others. – Telastyn Oct 8 '14 at 20:46
  • Flagging to close as too broad. I thought about converting my comments to an answer, and especially because we're now linking from programmers.SE this nearly seems like a duplicate of a programmers question, and the original question is basically "how does HR pick candidates?" which is certainly too broad. – user1084 Oct 9 '14 at 9:21
  • This is not a problem specific to programmers (see the answer about sports below) and would be offtopic there. – Telastyn Oct 9 '14 at 12:25
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – jmort253 Oct 10 '14 at 4:29
  • If I could I would -1. Based on a small sample size and a study from 30 years, you can reach such a conclusion? This leads me to believe the premise of your question is shaky at best. – Sun Oct 14 '14 at 3:50
30

As per the comment below, If I understand, the question is "how do people hire in fields where years of experience don't correlate with skill" and my answer is, "they still use years of experience regardless, for these bad reasons (below)."

If instead you are asking about how do people hire to locate actual skill, the answer is that they don't. That only happens in very tiny pockets of awesomeness usually spearheaded by a single person willing to bear the risk of doing things in an awesome way -- so there is no real "standard practice" for it.

To explore the bad reasons why experience is used regardless of its poor correlation with skill, one useful side question is to ask what do years of experience correlate with, if not skill in a role's core competencies? Some possible answers:

  1. workplace politics skill if you've made it to X years of experience where X is greater than, say, 5, then it shows you know how to survive office politics, weather the 40-hour grind without becoming awful towards colleagues, etc.

  2. established financial requirements if you have been a professional for X years, where X is greater than, say, 5, then there's a decent chance you are nearing a point of starting a family, or you already have, and property ownership is on your radar. You might also be in the middle of paying off expensive student loans. These things tend to imply a need for job security and stability, which can be signals that you won't be difficult to manage, you would be scared to lose the job after obtaining it, etc.

  3. prestige / "status capital" if you have plenty of experience (particularly if that experience comes from already-prestigious organizations) then your opinions (even if they are wrong, dumb, or harmful) will carry a ton of status once you are hired. People will be forced to give non-trivial rebuttals if they disagree, because after all, your sexy new hire has "X years of experience over at Fancy Co."

While almost no one would admit that these areas might trump competence when considering a hire, they are significant decision factors nonetheless. Hiring managers might not even be consciously aware they are preferencing these things. For example, consider the still puzzling fact that marriage is a significant predictor of a higher wage, even after controlling for a slew of possible confounding factors. Are married people just better at their jobs across the board? Probably not. The most compelling explanations are related to familial social status and this notion that patriarchal business hierarchies tend to reward employees who agree to enter obligations that yoke them financially to a particular job. If the same phenomenon wasn't true during hiring when it is true during time for raises and promotions, that would be surprising.

For lower experience levels, like 2-5 years, there is a different set of (possibly more legitimate) correlates:

  1. You passed more filters If other companies have hired the candidate before, and those companies did their own background checks and reference checks, it simply means that you are now bearing far less risk. So, in markets where there is a surplus of young talent, why not add the extra requirement for a couple of years of experience? As soon as a candidate meets that, it implies they passed interview questions, personality tests, background checks, etc., at those previous organizations. Of course that's not a perfect indicator of a good employee, but it's a helpful filter and it's easy and cheap to apply. Plus, the risk that you are missing out on the slim set of young-but-prodigical talent is low, and for many businesses you already don't want to pay a lot for prodigy-level talent anyway so you wouldn't have hired those people to begin with.

  2. Bureaucratic company policy It could also be the case that at some point in the distant past, someone in the company was able to successfully lobby for a blanket experience policy during hiring, or, more likely, a blanket policy that dictates how pay levels are calculated from years of experience. These policies may be entirely out of touch with the current job market, but because the process to change them is mired in so much bureaucratic dysfunction and political in-fighting, no one bothers to fight the system any more. Since junior hires are often less critical to the company, people are even less willing to fight for improving hiring filters on junior candidates.

  3. Plausible deniability (perhaps my favorite) many hiring managers try to use years of experience as a plausible deniability excuse if the new hire turns out to be a bad fit. This is similar to the way many managers choose to adopt technologies or policies not because they have done honest legwork to determine their appropriateness for the business problems on hand, but rather because they are widely adopted standards so it's easy, in the event that they don't work out, to deflect blame by saying, "well, it was an industry standard; there was no way I could have known it wouldn't work for us." In the "years of experience" case, it might manifest as, "Well, how could we know that John Doe wouldn't be the rock star we were all hoping for? John had 12 years of experience at Acme Co! Based on the resume, we could never have seen this coming..." In that sense, it is a risk aversion tactic to allow the hiring manager to deflect responsibility for a bad hire.

  • I'm not sure this actually answers the question. These are plausible reasons to keep the bad metric that doesn't actually tell you if people can do the job or not. – Telastyn Oct 7 '14 at 21:05
  • If I understood, the question is "how do people hire in fields where years of experience don't correlate with skill" and my answer is, "they still use years of experience regardless, for these bad reasons." If instead you are asking about how do people hire to locate actual skill, the answer is that they don't. That only happens is very tiny pockets of awesomeness usually spearheaded by a single person willing to bear the risk of doing things in an awesome way -- so there is no real "standard practice" for it. – ely Oct 7 '14 at 21:09
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    Paul Graham's article, "Great Hackers" might be of some use to you. It describes a little about this problem of hiring very good workers, though only in the context of computer programming. However, many of the ideas in the article would be applicable to other domains too. – ely Oct 7 '14 at 21:12
  • Nice article. I have the feeling I had read it before, but I'd also read the cited disconnects about experience too and forgot them. – Telastyn Oct 7 '14 at 23:07
  • Number 2 is flagrant age discrimination. Word it differently and you get "graduates will jump ship". – Gusdor Oct 8 '14 at 12:58
22

how do HR departments filter applications when they don't have expertise in the field, and years of experience is no sign of competence?

Short answer

Badly, but they have no better measure.

Longer answer

As you note, there is really no good way, so they choose what they think is the quickest and relatively efficient way to gauge the expertise level of candidates (of which there can be lots so speed is usually more important than perfection). They do acronym pattern matching and filter for years of experience as a loose measure of expertise. I think most of them know that there is a weak correlation only, still it is better than no correlation at all. However, their job is not to find the most suitable candidates, only to weed out most of the inadequate ones.

(And they aren't expected to be perfect even with that; if they passed through some crap candidates, they can almost always explain it with something like "sorry, these are the best we could get - maybe your job description is not enticing enough, and anyway we know that our company is not Google" * - on the other hand, if they filtered out a perfect candidate, noone will ever know.)

Practice makes the master?

Another - potentially unconscious - cause for this may be the widely known idea of "ten thousand hours of practice makes a master". This translates to about 10 years of professional experience. Of course, the problem with applying this principle at face value is, repeating the same one year of basic experience ten times does not make anyone a master. One has to regularly get out of his/her comfort zone, explore new territories, get and solve new challenges in order to get into and then stay in the top league.

A complementing criteria

So another useful signal (which in my experience HR is checking) is average length of employment relationships. Let's say HR got CVs from three developers who spent the same length of years on the field, but

  • A stayed at the same company, working on the same product in the same team all the time,
  • B worked at 4 different companies over the years,
  • C worked at 12 different companies over the years.

Chances are A has the least experience. B probably has significantly more experience, moreover (s)he managed to get a job already at 4 different companies, and also to keep it for several years, so she is most likely good at what she is doing. C, from his part, managed to get employed at even more companies, however his/her jobs lasted for less than a year on average so (s)he is most likely seen as a risky hire. Thus HR will most likely pick B as the best candidate. And if A and/or C get through the filter, they will get some tougher questions to prove their experience and their social abilities, respectively.

* except when it is Google of course. But Google HR probably needs no such excuses.

  • 1
    In my experience, HR will pick the first candidate because "we know they'll stay with us". – Telastyn Oct 8 '14 at 11:43
  • @Telastyn, hmmm, that may indeed be true in some companies. Luckily I haven't had a lot of such HR experiences. Or, well, maybe that's simply because I myself am not a type A so those guys just shred my CV without further notice ;-) – Péter Török Oct 8 '14 at 12:42
10

I hire programmers.

I am very aware of the fact that length of service has little to do with coding competence. I'm also very aware that the top 2% completely outclass the other 98% on sheer coding ability.

That said, when we put out an ad we do list X number of years experience within the relevant tech stack (usually 5+). The reason is that from my experience - 30+ in this industry - coding skill isn't the biggest factor in determining whether the person will be successful at a given position.

Factors that are usually as important, if not more so, include working with a team. Quite frankly it just takes time for someone to go through the various inevitable personality clashes that may occur and for them to figure out how to deal with them. It takes time for someone to make various mistakes in front of customers or upper management - and learn how not to do that again.

More specifically to development: it also takes time for someone to solve the exact same problem 20 different ways in order to be educated on what works long term and why.

Yes, with only two years in the work force you might very well be able to code circles around those who have been hacking at it for 5 or 10 years. However, in those 5+ years those guys have seen things fail in sometimes spectacular ways and have (generally) figured out simple things like rushing off to use the new shiny in the mission critical app is never a good plan.

So in the interview we'll weed out those who have only seen a couple projects go to completion and those who really only have 1 year, 5 times over. We'll weed out those who are prima donnas and who have only very limited experience working in a team; we'll also weed out those who have never completed a project entirely on their own. There are so many skills learned beyond just writing code that only time, along with failure, can bring.

To get past that gauntlet takes time; which means the first thing to weed out are those who simply haven't met the initial time requirement.

3

HR cannot in any field (Except HR) filter for competence, that is why you have interviews with technical people in attendance. HR can only filter out based on specific, defined criteria, do they say they know C#, do they have database experience, etc. They have to make the assumption that someone with more years of experience is more likely to have the skills required than someone without it. HR's job is to reduce the number of resumes to a manageable number and that is all. It is up to you to decide who to interview and to determine from the interviews who is qualified.

What you do is ask to see all the resumes and make your judgements yourself if the HR criteria are not working for you or redefine the criteria. (in some places you have to actually try to interview the "best qualified" first.) I guarantee they are sending through some horrible people and filtering out highly qualified ones because they don't understand that a guy who did 2 years of high performance terrabyte sized Oracle datbases might have more relevant experience than the guy who has ten years of SQL Server but never managed a database bigger than 1 Gig when your database is 2 terrabytes. All they know is that you said you needed SQL Server, so the Oracle guy is unqualified.

Even when you read the resumes directly, you will find that many a person looks better on paper than they do when you actually talk to them. All too many people tend to exaggerate their skills in a resume. I've interviewed people who couldn't even say what they did on a particular project that they specifically mentioned in their resume. My experience is that roughly 98% of the people who apply for a given job are actually not well-qualified to do it. You just have to trudge through the drek to find the diamonds.

  • 98% of applicants are qualified for the job? Where is this mythical land of competency? – Telastyn Oct 7 '14 at 20:55
  • Oops meant to say not well qualified. Fixed now. – HLGEM Oct 7 '14 at 20:55
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    It's not hard to provide HR with a set of questions or properties to check that are non-trivial filters for competence. We used to have one of our HR recruiters ask detailed questions about SQL and Python, and simply record the answers and compare them with answers we had given. We made sure it was the kind of judgement any non-technician could make, and then we carefully reviewed the first dozen or so decisions the recruiter planned to make, to ensure our method was well calibrated to what we also would have said about those resumes. – ely Oct 7 '14 at 21:05
  • In the end, this saved us literally hundreds of man-hours of time for technicians to do phone screens or review resumes. By the time the resumes got to us, the signal to noise was quite favorable. The problem was that the hiring manager (who was not competent in the area in which the hire was planned) kept changing the job description and requirements with no input from other team members, for many of the reasons outlined in my answer. Anyway, hitting a moving target is really hard in recruiting, and our wonderful system was slowly dismantled back to the usual "here scan these 50 resumes" crap – ely Oct 7 '14 at 21:08
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I think you have a faulty premise.

Is skill level in every job always and inevitably directly proportional to years of experience? Of course not. I can't imagine any serious person saying that it is.

But when you are hiring someone, there is usually no easy, direct way to measure "skill". I suppose if you were hiring a long-jumper for your Olympic team, you could take candidates out to the track and say, "Okay, let's see how far you can jump." Then you measure one number and you have a direct measure of skill.

But if you're hiring, say, a lawyer ... It isn't practical to say, "Here's a case where the company is representing one of the parties. Take it to court and we'll see if you win." Not only would it take far too much time and effort to conduct such a test, but the results would be inconclusive. Maybe he lost the case because it was unwinnable to begin with, or because the other side had the best lawyer in the world, or for a hundred other reasons. Ditto if he won it.

So in real life, you have to look for things that correlate with higher skill levels Not necessary a 100% linear correlation, but some degree of correlation. And I think in most fields, years of experience will have some degree of correlation. Someone who has been working in the field for 20 years is usually better at the job then someone who started yesterday. Not always. He could be an idiot who has only stayed employed because his bosses have felt sorry for him. Etc. But most people learn at least something every year they work, and so the more years he's been working, the more he has probably learned.

It would be naïve and foolish to say that you will automatically hire the person with the most years of experience from the available applicants. But no company I've ever worked for has done that. Rather, they use years of experience as one of many factors to judge a candidate.

  • Comments removed. Take extended discussions to chat please. – Monica Cellio Oct 8 '14 at 17:24
  • Actually, it would be practical to ask "how would you take this case to court". Even more so if it wasn't winnable. Each question asked in an interview should have a purpose. The purpose here might be to see how they handle potential failure. – NotMe Oct 8 '14 at 23:05
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Because HR's task is to initially find a few potential candidates and not properly evaluate each and every candidate. Of course if they use years of experience, they'll exclude qualified candidates (and they don't care) and they run the risk of including some candidates who do not qualify.

There are other criteria they can use to continuously weed out the pack. They even have the luxury of not filling some positions and can claim there are no suitable candidates.

Many technologists feel there are too few qualified people in their fields, so it is very frustrating to see qualified candidates get passed over because they don't have enough years of experience in the specific matrix of skills required or they lack some social skill nuance unrelated to the job.

Also, years of experience can show that someone has at least been willing to show up for work and met some semblance of approval from a previous employer. In your example, someone may have great coding skills, but with no job experience, it is difficult to determine if they will make the effort needed and get along with everyone and all the other skills needed to perform the job.

  • I would think that "must show up for work" is a rather obvious implied job requirement. – Telastyn Oct 8 '14 at 11:37
  • @Telastyn - Whether it is obvious or not, it helps to have prior history as a way to demonstrate you can do it. I wouldn't assume everyone who claims they can code to be able to hold down a job. – user8365 Oct 14 '14 at 16:18
  • and you assume that people who held down a coding job can actually code? – Telastyn Oct 14 '14 at 16:56
  • @Telastyn - No, the converse isn't always true. And people who know how to code don't always get things done. You need to be able to function as an employee and have the technical skill. – user8365 Oct 21 '14 at 19:47
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"years of experience" usually means a desire for a set of skills that might not be stated in the job posting. If you had that experience, then it would be obvious why they are asking for that.

i.e. it's usually about being in different kinds of leadership positions.

No job situation is "everyone is a peer"

So: if you don't have the "years of experience" but you think you can accomplish everything that is probably implied by that phrase, you should definitely apply. The people interviewing should be able to deduce whether they think you would be perfect for what they need.

The biggest hurdle to get over: If there are people there with just under that # of years experience, it's usually expected that you'll be in a situation where you would have some kind of leadership role relative to those people. Minimally a peer. So that's the real question. How would people with equivalent years of experience relate to you? If they see you as someone who helps solve the issues they face, they'll embrace you. If not, they'll reject you.

People sometimes leap to the "social skills".. but there are clearly technical skills. Instead of just building something someone else defined, can you look at the needs, architect a solution that the team can build with the available resources and time, sell it to the others already working there as the perfect thing to build, and modify it based on feedback?

I think the biggest thing is to recognize the wide range of "things" a job requires. If you've never done those things, but "think" you can, well everyone likes to think that.

If you've done those things, you know it, and you'll be able to ace the interview.

Simply put: don't claim you have the skills, if you can't be confident you'll be able to demonstrate the unstated skills in an interview. If you got them, the interviewers will know.

  • 1
    None of that matters if the person can't write code. And interviews are well known to be crapshoots. This doesn't really answer the question... – Telastyn Oct 8 '14 at 11:40
  • @Telastyn - I am not sure why you think this does not answer the question. I will say that I have been given stacks full of candidates from HR where not a single one of them had the must haves let alone the nice to haves... so HR is not always the greatest filter. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Oct 8 '14 at 13:30
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    @ReallyTiredOfThisGame - because it talks more about the candidate trying to circumvent something that is broken and why the studies are wrong as opposed to offering an example of hiring companies doing something not broken. – Telastyn Oct 8 '14 at 13:44
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This is only application to location where employee has lots of choose of jobs, that pay reasonably and that they are able to get. If IT is the only way someone will be able to afford food, then….

Most people do not enjoy doing a job if they.

  • Don’t think they are good at it
  • Other people don’t think they are good at it

If someone has x years of experience doing XYZ and still is seeking another job doing XYZ, then it is reasonable given the above to assume that at least at some level they consider themself good at the job.

This fails if they have been working elsewhere when everyone is bad at the job, so they are just a little less bad.

For the same reason some companies will not make a job offer until they know that the candidate has offers from elsewhere, as they never will to take on someone that is being “forced” to work for them.

-1

Laziness, really.

Take a well-known field in which it's clearly not the case: professional sports. The average 40 year old has way more experience than a 25 year old, but it just doesn't correlate with skill.

Their solution is to actually observe performance. Every team has scouts, which is just a HR function if you look at it. It does require the scout to understand what's relevant.

So, why isn't this approach copied in other fields? Sports are much more competitive, and the influence of skill is acknowledged. Especially since Moneyball, sports HR has no choice but to be as competitive as the team itself. In comparison, company HR departments are not nearly as competitive. But if you as a CEO want your company to be competitive, take a lesson from sport. Make your HR team the best talent scouts in your business.

  • Just a thought, it might as well be because they have way more money at stake... – dyesdyes Oct 8 '14 at 10:01
  • @dyesdyes: That's what competitive means, yes. – MSalters Oct 8 '14 at 10:02
  • Competitive doesn't imply a lot of money. A sector can be really competitive without having a lot of money at stake. But it's true that money will imply competivity, but competivity won't have to imply money. – dyesdyes Oct 8 '14 at 10:30
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    It's worth pointing out that in many sports there is a shift towards analytics due to the inaccuracy of scouting. – Telastyn Oct 8 '14 at 11:34
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    I don't think scouting could translate well into a normal corporate HR department for the simple reason that within a given company there is an order of magnitude more types of positions than there are types of football players. For a sports scout, they can focus on a very finite list of skills - and these skills really haven't changed much in however many years. For HR, just in an IT department there are over a dozen different job titles/functions. Combine that with accounting, legal, etc and it is simply impossible for HR to do anything other than be a paper shuffler. – NotMe Oct 8 '14 at 23:28

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