Don’t Hire Experience, Hire Learners

A few weeks ago, the Australian Financial Review published an article discussing how Australian employers value job candidates with an MBA. The short summary is: they don’t value MBAs at all. One headhunter was quoted saying something along the lines of “most employers say that if you have to choose between getting an MBA or getting two more years of experience, you’re much better off with the experience.”

This is one of the dumbest things I have ever read. Ever.

Here’s the problem with this idea: if you get two more years of experience what are you likely to be going? You’re most likely to be doing exactly what you’re doing right now. This has no practical value at all.

Jason Fried and David Hansson make an important point about this in their book ReWork. They say:

Of course, requiring some baseline level of experience can be a good idea when hiring. It makes sense to go after candidates with six months to a year of experience. It takes that long to internalize the idioms, learn how things work, understand the relevant tools, etc.
But after that, the curve flattens out. There’s surprisingly little difference between a candidate with six months of experience and one with six years. The real difference comes from the individual’s dedication, personality, and intelligence.

I’ll add one other critical factor to this – the real difference comes from peoples’ ability to learn. The problem with experience in the same job is that you stop learning. So staying in the same position that you’re currently in instead of doing an MBA, or doing anything that’s different is a problem – you’re not learning anything new.

I’ve hired a lot of people over the years, and my track record has been pretty good. Reading ReWork made me realise something – I can’t remember ever hiring someone that had a lot of experience in the job I was hiring them to do. Why? Because I’ve worked in areas that were changing. People with experience in the job had a bunch of bad habits that weren’t suited to the changing environments. It was always better to hire someone that could learn. Learners are much better equipped to deal with change.

If your industry is stable, with very little change, then you can afford to hire experience.

On the other hand, if your industry is changing, then experience is too expensive. You’re much better off hiring someone that is a skilled learner.

There are plenty of ways to identify skilled learners. They move from position to position relatively frequently (even if they’re in the same organisation all the way through), the initiate things, they talk about learning when you discuss their career trajectory with them. Some of them might even take some time off from work specifically so that they can learn some new skills.

Forget experience – hire learners.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

13 thoughts on “Don’t Hire Experience, Hire Learners

  1. Hi Tim,

    Having an MBA myself (and 11 years work experience) I agree that the statement in the AFR was rather stupid.

    It’s quite astounding that someone can assume that ‘experience’ is inherently a guarantee of a good candidate. There’s people that work for thirty years in jobs that are far from effective or capable. I question how successful this particular recruiter is in filling roles to client satisfaction.

    Selecting a candidate must be based on multiple factors from skills, experience, training, personality and more. I learnt a lot in my MBA, just as I learnt a lot working in different jobs in different countries. I learnt equally as much on my backpacking adventures around Europe and in my personal life with friends and family.

    I whole heartedly agree with your point on recruiting people who are willing and able to learn. I’d actually look for someone who was honest and open and shared examples of where they’ve made mistakes provided they learnt from it. Some basic interview questions would reveal these sorts of ‘learner’ attributes.

    “Forget experience – hire learners”

    Hear Hear!

  2. Thanks for the comment Paul! Glad to hear that you agree. Your point about learning through backpacking is a good one too – the diversity of experience is what we should be looking for, I think, not the amount.

  3. Thanks for the comment Stéphane. I agree with you about the importance of balance – blog posts are bad vehicles for communicating the nuance of things. On the other hand, the article that I was reacting to was pretty extreme.

  4. Paul – one more thing – that quote came from one particular recruiter, but the article was littered with quotes from people that essentially said the same thing. It is one of the more depressing things I’ve read recently…

  5. Thanks for the comment Doug! That’s a very nice post – thanks for the link – definitely looking forward to the follow-up. The way that you bring age into it is very interesting.

  6. Hi Tim,
    As you noticed, I picked up this article on my blog, and added my own experience, as a tutor of part-time MBA students. Thanks for your comment and keep up the good work.

    • Thanks John – I think that you expanded on this really nicely and it’s great to see that your experience is consistent with mine.

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