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Jun. 3 2010 - 7:27 am | 1,489 views | 1 recommendation | 5 comments

Hiring for experience vs hiring for talent

Andrew Sullivan passes on a letter from an unemployed reader who says that interviewers will only consider experience if you’ve already done exactly the job they’re hiring for. Kevin Drum writes that he’s always considered this widespread attitude to be bizarre, and that he always tried to hire the most talented person with any more or less relevant experience, figuring that after the first month or two the learning curves would cross and after that you’d be better off with the sharper, not more experienced, candidate.

I’ve only hired people one-by-one, for small groups, and only in two fields: web design, and journalism. In both fields, I’ve found talent is a lot more important than closely related experience. But the other thing I’ve found is that people have different kinds of talents and skills, and a lot of them don’t cross over very well. You know that thing they tell you about how anyone can learn to write? That doesn’t seem to me to be generally true, past a certain point. You may be smart, inquisitive, and well organized, but if you don’t know how to write by the time you’re 23 or so, I think the chances you’re ever going to be a passable writer decline very sharply. Conversely, you can be a great writer, but if you don’t know how to get organized by the time you’re 23…you get the idea.

But there are a couple of other things to note. First, motivation is extremely important. What does this person want to get out of this job? Does that mesh with what you need someone to do? And secondly, and relatedly, I’ve never been in an organization where people only did one narrowly defined task. Whatever the direct nature of their responsibilities, people generally fulfill a variety of roles in the organization, related to their talents. Some people are social bucker-uppers. Some people help keep everyone focused on whether tasks that need to be accomplished have been checked off. Usually when someone leaves the organization, or when the organization grows into a new role, what you need isn’t just somebody who can do one specific task; it’s somebody who can fill a range of functions that the group needs. So you need to think about that too.

Not that I’m particularly good at this, and the biggest group I’ve ever headed has consisted of four people. I’m sure at the higher levels of HR in large organizations things look very different.


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  1. collapse expand

    It doesn’t really stand as a counter-argument but when I was 24 and starting at Emory, my African History teacher was pretty sure I couldn’t write. Life to that point had generally required literacy to the extent that I could read the label on a poison can and the keep body parts away from the death dealing parts of this machine warnings on farm implements. (Nearly lost my thumb anyway.)

    But I’d agree that a college graduate who can’t write probably shouldn’t write.

  2. collapse expand

    I was hired into a PT retail job when many managers would never have given me the shot — no experience, way too old, overqualified. I loved it for a while and, more important, became their best-selling PTer and often outsold the (burned out, bored) full-timers.

    Motivation is key; you can learn some skills as quickly or as much as you want to. In this lousy economy, hiring managers need to re-think their traditional attitudes or a lot of great people are screwed.

    • collapse expand

      Caitlin,

      I’ve read a few things that you’ve written. You were angry and bitter at your ex-husband because your storybook NYT marriage fell apart. You complained publicly about your customers. And you took this opportunity to brag about your performance.

      I think there are other reasons that someone would be wary to hire you.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    A colleague in his late 40s told me that he interviewed for an engineering management position where the interviewers believed that because he had never worked with the particular part they were making, his 15 years of working in the same industry with different parts would make the learning curve too difficult for him to overcome.

    I’ve always found it interesting that in a world so full of possibilities, where Universities are touting the abilities of their graduates to address problems and to work in careers that don’t yet exist (http://insidework.net/resources/articles/the-top-ten-jobs-of-2015-dont-exist-today) the emphasis of employers is so heavily focused on having people do exactly what they’ve done in the past.

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    I've reported from Vietnam since 2003. I'm now the Hanoi correspondent for the German-based, English-language wire service Deutsche Presse-Agentur, and was previously a Hanoi-based stringer for the Boston Globe and for Voice of America. Before that I reported from West Africa, and before that from the Netherlands; my articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the Nation, the New York Times Magazine and the New York Times. I've got a thing for languages, and have picked up Russian, French, Dutch and Vietnamese. I used to write scripts for the children's cartoon shows "Arthur", "Doug", and a few others. I got a degree in interactive telecommunications back when most people had never sent an email. In April 1991 I predicted the USSR would collapse into its constituent republics and that Boris Yeltsin would become president of Russia. Since then most of my predictions have been rather less accurate, so it was probably a fluke.

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