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Does Work Experience Even Matter?

It’s a difficult position to be in for almost every new college graduate: how do you get a job with no experience…when every job opening requires a minimum two years of experience? But even “experienced” professionals find themselves in frustrating situations brought about by our collective focus on experience—sometimes they lack enough experience to apply […]

It’s a difficult position to be in for almost every new college graduate: how do you get a job with no experience…when every job opening requires a minimum two years of experience?

But even “experienced” professionals find themselves in frustrating situations brought about by our collective focus on experience—sometimes they lack enough experience to apply and sometimes they applied, are interviewed, and are then told they’re overqualified.

It’s worth asking if our obsession with “work experience” is even worth it.

New research suggests that it’s likely not. In a recent meta-analysis (a fancy term for a study that combined data from lots of past studies), three researchers examined the relationship between work experience and performance on the job. This was a large study, covering 81 one prior studies and over 20,000 participants across most industries in the United States. 

Looking over all the participants, the researchers found only a weak correlation between prior experience and performance, both during initial training and on the job. In addition, they found no correlation at all between prior work experience and the likelihood that an employee would quit soon after being hired. The data just doesn’t support the idea that job applicants with past experience in similar job will be better performing or longer-tenured (and hence more valuable employees).

It’s probably always been that way. Job experience has most often been used as a proxy for measuring knowledge, skills, and abilities. But that proxy only works when employees acquire diverse sets of experiences, develop wide-ranging sets of skills, and grow in their abilities. If they merely repeat the same tasks and those projects never stretch their abilities or require gaining new knowledge, then the number of years spent on that job aren’t all that important.

Some people have 10 years of experience and others have 1 years of experience repeated 10 times.

The implications of these findings suggest that most organizations would benefit from changing a few things about their hiring practices. The first would be to de-emphasize “work experience” as a magic number of years before consideration, or at least widen the range of years requested. The second would be to design interviews to more effectively capture information about knowledge, skills, and abilities. Add more behavioral or situational interview questions and perhaps even work simulations. And of course, I’m a big fan of incorporating probationary trials and allowing future team mates to have a bigger say in the hiring process.

The implications for job seekers are a little more nuanced. If you’re looking at a job description and you’re on the cusp of required years of experience listed, it may be worth applying anyway and trusting a well-designed resume and well-phrased cover letter to make the case for why you’re qualified. And if you receive an interview, be prepared to argue for why your years of experience present a more diverse set of experiences than other candidates.

Overall, the biggest implication is that work experience just isn’t a worthwhile proxy anymore.

And experience tells me it never was.

This article originally appeared on DavidBurkus.com and as an episode of the DailyBurk, which you can follow on YouTubeFacebookLinkedIn, or Instagram.

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