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'Number of Years of Experience' in Technical Recruitment, is it right?

The average Job description often contains many examples of “years of experience in….” as a measure of what employers think they want in candidates searching for their next engineering and technical careers. There are many reasons why job seekers, hiring managers, and recruiters should recognise that ‘X years’ of experience is a highly unsatisfactory gauge of an applicant’s skills, capabilities, and suitability for a role.

  • Firstly, there are some questions about the legality, from an age discrimination perspective as it dictates a minimum age an applicant must be
  • Secondly, it allows no measure of the transferable skills an applicant may possess
  • Thirdly, more of something is just more, it’s not necessarily better quality

So why does the technical / technology recruitment industry continue to see this method to describe what type of technical and engineering candidate clients are looking for? Surely there is a better method? ‘Hard’ skills are often the most sought-after attributes in the technical recruitment industry. Considering engineering and technical candidates are mostly ‘left-brained’, should we be using such an ambiguous, vague, and unreliable method to evaluate candidates for engineering jobs?

What the Research says

In 2016, Frank L Schmidt published a research project summarising meta-analytic findings from 100 years of research, on how well different selection methods can predict performance.

Schmidt's report looked at 31 different selection methods, including years of relevant job experience. He found that someone's capability to perform a job/role is influenced by their cognitive ability, personality traits, knowledge and skills, rather than simply the number of years of relevant experience they have. 

The relationship between years of relevant experience and job performance is often very weak. In groups where experience of the job was no more than five years, the relationship was slightly stronger, but years of experience were still only a modest predictor of performance and subsequent outcome.

Years of Experience do not say much about performance

The key here is that one predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour or past performance in a similar situation. If you have done something consistently a certain way, you're likely to do the same thing in the same manner in the future. The same goes for job performance because years of previous experience convey little to no information about performance and outcomes. For example, someone with two years of experience in project management may have the same level of competency as someone with many years of experience in project management.

Prioritising the number of years of experience rewards quantity over quality and performance against deliverables and ignores the aptitude and actual skills of the individual.

Alternatives to the ‘Number of years’ experience’ method

To improve efficiency and limit bias, a structured Rubric process is an objective scoring tool used to evaluate and assess a set list of criteria and competencies during an interview process. Rubrics take up-front time to determine and design and can be tricky - especially for mid-to-senior level engineering roles, where leadership and other non-technical competencies often matter, but a concrete scoring guide is far better at giving a comparative result across different candidates and are not subject to a hiring manager’s personal feelings, prejudices, unconscious bias or interpretations of a candidate.

The Rubric approach is used during the interview process to determine where a candidate currently stands in their profession, to determine what they want to learn, and how they want to progress with their career. This is valuable to determine what type of work assignment would be the best fit for a candidate.

With a numerical system, where the level of performance is mapped to a specific number (rating scale), you can create a quantified final score to compare skills between candidates. When designing the rubric, outline the range of possible scores for each skill and which behaviours the candidate should demonstrate to achieve each score. The more specific you get, the better and more accurate the process.

For example, in a Software Engineering role, you can grade each skill and end up with a total score, e.g. this is done by figuring out where a candidate stands in the following areas:

  • Software Test
  • Verification
  • Systems design
  • Problem-solving
  • C Programming
  • C++ Programming
  • Algorithm Development
  • Curiosity
  • Collaboration

Consider all relevant competencies that are important to the role you're hiring for and pick the most important ones to include in the rubric. Once built, remember to check that it's working as intended and that every interviewer scores the same interview independently.

However, in an interview situation, a simpler method could be used to evaluate whether bringing a candidate on board would be mutually beneficial. The key indicators to look for are as follows:

  • Does the candidate show a history of learning new technical skills and implementing those?
  • Does the candidate show a history of learning additional technical skills advanced of what they already know?

These indicators are not to be mistaken for the candidate having the core technical understanding in certain areas, they are a complement. For example, if it’s a start-up software engineering team, you will need developers who are willing to move fast, especially on the front-end; development process and willing to learn whatever it takes. Recruiting a candidate who is willing to learn above and beyond the minimum amount of knowledge and technical skills to finish the tasks is an equally important factor in evaluating specific technical skills, competencies and accomplishments.

Those with 5-10 Years’ Experience

More specifically, the most difficult engineering experience level to recruit is that of 7-10 years. Why is this? Engineers have invested several years within companies. They often want stability or have relocation issues. They've established seniority at their current organisation and are not looking to start over at a new company. They’re also often the employees who hold the most intellectual IP within a business so are often highly valued by their current employer. Therefore, a company looking to hire skilled senior and principal engineers with this level of experience must often ‘sweeten the deal’ to get the engineer to move to a new design job.

Should We Get Rid of “Number of Years of Experience” when Hiring?

Yes, absolutely. In addition to it posing discriminatory issues, there are much more sophisticated and accurate ways of evaluating the skills, competencies and attitudes you need to complement the core technical skills when approaching the technical recruitment process. A method such as a rubric can help interviewers approach recruiting in an efficient and standardised method, and make more objective decisions ensuring the best and most qualified are fit for the role.

Redline changes lives every day, building world-class teams for technology and engineering companies. With four decades of experience, we can offer impartial advice on recruitment matters and how candidates should be assessed. Contact us on +44 (0)1582 450054 or email info@redlinegroup.com.

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