Does experience matter when it comes to hiring?

As the workforce gap yawns a little wider and the UK faces a labour productivity crisis, a solution may lie in thinking outside the job description box

Hiring talent without previous experience. Woman in job interview

You may have seen the viral tweet from Sebastián Ramírez, a software engineer. Ramírez was lamenting how he was unable to apply for a job as he didn’t have 4+ years of experience working in a particular framework. 

The kicker was that he created it only 18 months before. 

It’s a painful reminder of the “experience needed” paradox. You need a job to get a job. But as the list of requirements on a job description grows, are we cutting off blood flow for innovation?

The struggle to innovate

The Global Innovation Index 2022 marked labour productivity growth as a weakness for the UK. 80% of businesses are reportedly struggling to plug gaps in their workforce. So is this an opportunity to remove requirements like industry experience to attract candidates with the appetite to learn, the applicable skills, and new viewpoints that can break down worn-out processes? 

The economics consultancy Frontier Economics, using statistical data from the ONS, examined what are known as “knowledge spillovers”, processes and innovations produced by creative industries that are then used by non-creative industries. Research shows that businesses that have closer links to the creative industries have a higher output of innovations. One of those knowledge-sharing links is through labour turnover, the movement of talent between sectors. But that doesn’t happen very often. 

There have been numerous calls to diversify candidate pools, to take the experiences of diverse workforces and use them to rethink how businesses go to market. But restrictions on a candidate’s experience remain a barrier to exploring new careers even when there are transferable skills.

There’s been a disturbance in the workforce

The traditional approach to hiring, which emphasises experience in similar roles, is no longer serving organisations the way that it used to. In reality, jobs are rarely confined to just the responsibilities listed in a job description and yet organisations use job descriptions as a litmus test of a candidate’s capability. Increasingly, in order to find the best candidates, businesses need a new approach to hiring. 

The Covid-19 pandemic led to many people reflecting on what they wanted from their careers. Ever since, more and more people have been willing to move and take on new challenges. This trend, dubbed the “Great Resignation” means more candidates with diverse job experiences are entering the talent landscape, carrying over transferable skills built over their careers, creating a workforce with far more diverse experiences and combinations of skills than generations before. All with the appetite to venture beyond their comfort zones, and if candidates are open to trying something new, so should organisations.

Already, a shift to skills-based hiring has begun, as digital transformation accelerates and new solutions are discovered for old problems. The focus is shifting to adaptability, flexibility and the curiosity to learn to cope with the speed of change.

Soft skills should be as important as experience

Developing soft skills doesn’t need a required number of years in a particular industry. Skills like communication and leadership can be moulded by any job role. Fiona*, associate product marketing manager at Salesforce, has pivoted across roles and industries in her career, from business consulting to marketing in pharma and now product marketing in tech, she’s taken the skills she learnt in each role and carried it into the next. “You are here with the option of choosing what you really want to get from your life, and nothing needs to be forever,” she says.

Although Fiona has moved across jobs and industries in her career, she doesn’t downplay the importance of industry experience. “Having the transferable skills alone isn’t enough to justify the value you can bring”. However, she acknowledges that the ability and willingness to learn is just as important. Similarly, Marion Devine, principal researcher at think-tank The Conference Board believes “we’re coming to this interesting paradox where soft skills and cognitive skills are going to be really important.”

But when changing careers and faced with a hiring manager’s long list of requirements, it can feel like this capacity to learn is undervalued. Joanna Kori, head of people at Encompass Corporation, a platform specialising in know-your-customer (KYC) technology, recalls a time when she was drawn to a job application where the candidate did a part-time course in psychology while working. “I knew how much discipline and character it would take for someone to do something like that, she states. 

It can be hard to summarise work ethic and attitude to growth in a few bullet points on a piece of paper. Even now too many requirements on a job description can be off-putting, discouraging career changers. “Job descriptions are so restrictive and so prescriptive that it can feel like the application process isn’t worth the investment of your time,states Fiona.

The combination of technical and soft skills

“We’re seeing jobs converge, we’re seeing industries converge. We’re seeing technology breaking down silos, breaking down distinctions, says Devine. The traditional approach to hiring which emphasises experience may no longer fit the evolving talent landscape rendering job descriptions, essentially, out of date. “Most of us have a job description that doesn’t accurately reflect what we do. And it probably isn’t going to reflect what we’re doing in six months,” she continues. The need for an adaptable workforce that thrives on dissecting new technologies and is accepting of a dynamic workplace will only get stronger.

As gen Z, who will make up 30% of the workforce by 2030, enters the workplace, with their hyper-digital nature and demand for a solid work/life balance, the evolution of the talent landscape may need to accelerate to accommodate this new influx of employees. This generation are digital natives, receiving education rooted in technology, and are adept at learning new tools quickly.

Gen Z are also known for moving between jobs and being vocal about it on social media – often quitting if their employer’s ethics don’t align with their own. Businesses may no longer be able to ask for X number of years of experience in a certain field as it will no longer be the norm. The culture of staying within a certain industry or job role for several years may be a thing of the past as gen Z and millennials prioritise their personal ethics, wellbeing and interests. And disregarding these kinds of candidates due to lack of longevity in a particular role or industry could be massively harmful to organisations. 

Job descriptions don’t need to be written in absolutes

As Kori mentions, job descriptions need not be prescriptive. We’ve gone beyond what we initially thought a data analyst job should be or what a content marketer does. Going back to square one and deconstructing a job description can be the first port of call when shifting towards skills-based hiring. Devine agrees. “We looked at the job descriptions in the market and saw there was a big divergence with our job descriptions, they were out of date.” Removing the long-held assumptions about the type of skills you need can help organisations align more closely with the shifts in the wider landscape.

Often when hiring, the question of whether the candidate is a “cultural fit” comes up. But this avoidance of potentially radical thinking may be hindering businesses and employers who filter out candidates based on, at times, arbitrary criteria risk missing out on good hires. “They don’t necessarily have direct industry experience, but they’re fresh thinkers, perhaps they’re very customer-orientated, maybe they’ve got fantastic media skills,” says Devine. Breaking away from a typical profile of an ideal candidate can offer a new perspective and career changers can question traditional ways of working. “Companies are engaging with their customers in very different ways,” she continues.

Taking a project management approach to hiring by identifying a set of skills that the business needs and bringing employees together for project-based work can be a way to look at skills-based hiring, says Kori. This would offer flexibility by building teams as and when needed, rather than being bound by the limitations of job descriptions.

Hiring needs to be as innovative as the candidates you seek

Innovation is a multi-headed beast and is difficult to pin down. But as competition for talent heats up, workforce gaps widen and the pressure to innovate builds up, it is worth taking a step back and deconstructing the way businesses hire. Current job descriptions may no longer be serving businesses as well as they did, and the key to enabling firms to thrive could be reconsidering the applications that may not fit 100%. As Devine points out: “Creativity is the mindset and the willingness to ask questions, not to take this status quo.”

*Name has been changed