I am not a Number

A recent article from the Training Journal made me stop in my tracks.  It forced me to re-assess one of the standard benchmarks we use when hiring, promoting or assigning people in the workplace.  Experience.
Andrew Gibbons highlights a “total lack of understanding of the disconnection between experience and value.”  I tend to agree.  We often use “years of experience” as a requirement in job descriptions when hiring new staff, or “years in role” before giving someone a promotion to the next grade.  In many organisations we work with here in the Middle East, incremental promotion through grades is tied directly to time in role.  The longer an individual spends in the company or role, the more they earn and the higher they go.  However, the correlation between “experience” and actual performance is not so easy or accurate.
Experience matters, and a lot of jobs need this. Beyond that point it all gets a little fuzzy.  The problem is simple, the value of experience is not a function of age or of time in a role.  The worth of any unit of time in a role varies significantly from one person to another.
Thus one person with 25 years of ‘experience’ can have just one years’ worth of experience 25 times. Whereas another apparently ‘inexperienced’ person could genuinely accrue the full 25 years of value within three if they are focused on what consciously can be learned, thus seriously enriching their capability and competence.
The same theory applies to skill development.  A skilled musician doesn’t get better by practicing the same music he learned in his few months.  He develops, broadens and pushes his understanding and skill through deliberate, focused practice.  If I had applied that principle myself I would be the lead guitarist in Metallica, rather than still playing the same stuff I learned when I was 15!
If we factor in the obsolescence of so much which was current in the early 1990s, clearly there is a ‘top loading’ element to experience in favour of the recent past.
Find me energetic, enthusiastic, focused twenty-something-year-olds with five years of experience who have serious potential for future growth. They shape up well against people thirty years older with plenty more years behind them, but less relevant and valuable learning and capability. Another consideration, in my view less significant, is that they are likely to cost less.
A dynamic, thriving workplace has a balance of the two.  A mix of mature staff who have built hard earned experience through years of facing different challenges, and younger staff who are more in tune with today’s fast moving digital workplace and are eager to learn.
As one of the baby boomer generation myself, I’m not having a dig at the fifty plus folk – the most capable people in any workforce for me are those that have both the years in work and critically, an unquenched thirst for new learning that fuels a self-driven appetite to develop and become constantly more effective.
However, there are problems. If we routinely screen out applicants with less than 10 or 15 years’ experience in our recruiting process, we potentially miss out on recruiting the apparently lesser experienced yet seriously capable people that have multiplied the value of maybe six years to make it worth thirty. They are being passed over in favour of those with twenty seven years in the bag, of which only nine are current and relevant, and who have little will to make positive use of the next ten as a less ‘experienced’ person.  It’s just too easy to look no further than the number of years earned and not their value.
So what can we do about it?  Some key lessons to be learned:
Encourage ‘younger’ people to help potential employers see that the few years they have worked are worth more than that number.
For those of us with both years and a track record of putting them to real use, make your efforts clearer – those that make career and recruitment decisions tend to see numbers only, not the outcomes or value of these.
Whatever your age, the way to get maximum learning value from each working year is to plan and genuinely manage your own professional development. The passives will lose out to active and energetic learners who use deliberate, focused practice to enhance their employability, catching the attention of the too few organisations with the good sense to see that experience is not a number

Thanks to Andrew Gibbons; andrew@andrewgibbons.co.uk

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