Don’t Hire Experience, Hire Learners

by Tim Kastelle

Don't Hire Experience, Hire LearnersA 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 realize 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 organization 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.

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Tim KastelleTim Kastelle is a Lecturer in Innovation Management in the University of Queensland Business School. He blogs about innovation at the Innovation Leadership Network.

No comments

  1. Thank you for giving me a good idea on how to play up what I’ve known for some time is one of my strengths (desire and ability to learn) when I get into an interview. I don’t have a lot of experience in the areas I’m trying to go into – I’m trying to step out of the lab and into the rest of the business arena – and focusing on how this strength prepares me for dealing with change sounds a lot more strategic than the simply eager way it tends to come out.

  2. so how do we identify these skilled learners?

    Skilled learners, I believe are people who have the mentality and willingness to learn, which is not something easy to find…

  3. Basically application of the proverb “you never step into the same river twice”.

  4. I agree in concept, but not necessarily with the MBA part. Many people default to MBA or additional education when they cannot secure a job, or can’t move up based on the performance they’ve shown on the job.
    They are certainly highly qualified MBAs and I applaud those that work and learn, but I do think you can learn through experience. Full disclosure – I tossed my MBA plans because I was managing six departments in my 20s and learning on the job everyday.
    I would rather hire someone who has the drive to push into new things and take on additional responsibilities in their job, than someone who simply has an MBA on their resume.

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