Five To Seven Years Experience Required: Part 3

I wrote my first check 30 ó ah, let’s just say several ó years ago. It was an agonizing experience that required about a half an hour, two voided checks, two bottles of beer, and a personal commitment to use cash in the future whenever possible. But within the year I was a competent check writer and did a reasonable job, within 25 dollars or so, of balancing my checkbook and bank statements. After five years I had sufficient experience to have mastered the art of weekly check writing while watching television. Now, many thousands of checks later, I am a “Jedi Knight Master” at using promissory vouchers to assure reimbursement with the precision of a laser saber. So, maybe “years experience” does have a direct link to levels of skill competencies after all, right? Wrong! A relative of mine ó who shall remain nameless, since we still have to get together for weddings and funerals every now and then ó has been writing checks for almost as long as I have. To date, this relative still always tries to keep a “floating” two hundred dollars in his (or it could be her ó let’s not narrow down the suspects) account to cover any math or entry errors in his checkbook. The bank has opened a new branch financed almost exclusively on the overdraft fees this relative of mine still has to pay. This is an educated, intelligent, professional and successful person we’re talk about(just don’t take a check from him, ask for cash). The lesson: A competency as a function of “years experience” is not a sure thing. Let’s recap the last two installments. If you hope to develop good search criteria to unmask true indicators of skill sets and competency levels, you must:

  • Accept that people learn at different rates. Years experience merely ensures you access the “average candidate.” The high achievers are lost to your search. Competent candidates who learn at a slower rate, but have the skills you require, are also lost. You only screen in about one third of the viable candidates.
  • Work with the hiring manager to develop a position description and skill profile that contains the real skills necessary to be hired.
  • Ensure you are not seeking candidates who have the skills to do the job but not the desire. This is the age-old issue of “over-hiring”: The candidates are a perfect fit, provided they have no personal goals or ambitions that get in the way and are willing to take a pay cut in order to be able to stagnate in their career.
  • Develop an understanding of the objective and subjective aspects of the position to correctly recruit for it.
  • Be willing not to just “round up the usual suspects,” but to be a true detective and search for the real clues that will lead to the best possible hire.
  • Be willing to uncover the all-too-common occurrence of hiring managers developing a position description for a low skill-level position while fixating on the skills and competencies of their best employee ó forgetting that those skills and competencies were developed “on the job,” not on the resume.

But before we can really develop a search criteria and subsequent keywords, we have one last issue to overcome: the source document of all this data we seek, the infernal resume, or it’s European cousin, the suave and sophisticated “curriculum vitae” (CV). For it’s important for you not only to develop a sense of skill criteria based on your own vocabulary, but also to understand how candidates represent that skill or explain their competencies using their own vocabulary (you say potato, I say “au gratin”). For example, in the hypothetical exercise I gave in Part 1 and 2, it was determined that the real “nine to five” function of the job in question was updating, changing, correcting, or explaining non-alterable information. There was little direct involvement with the customers or decision-making authority. As a result, some search words you may have been tempted to use in developing search strings as skill modifiers could have included:

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  • Data entry
  • Inquiry
  • Assist
  • Support

But a candidate with the lower-level competencies your position requires may have felt the need to “polish the apple” when writing their resume and stated that they:

  • Resolved conflicts
  • Directed actions
  • Implemented strategies
  • Developed solutions

(A candidate once described their summer job to me as, “Responsible for negotiations, sales, disbursement, and timely delivery of bio-degradable substances to a transient customer base.” Turns out they were a cash register operator at a McDonalds. I forwarded the resume to marketing/communications, since they exaggerate for a living. This is a true story; we hired the person.) So even after getting your own process under control, you are confronted with the imperfections of others. But you have no one to blame but yourself. After all, you are the one who told your guidance counselor you “liked working with people” and thus chose HR/staffing as a career. One solution is to develop two search criteria, “high ball” and “low ball,” and run a search using both. Invest some “human eye time” reviewing the results and determine if one search has developed a better candidate profile than the other or if you need to use both in your search. Another possibility is that you discover the best elements of the two searches give you the key to a third, more successful, search strategy. Another approach to fine-tuning your search and developing a better search string would be to take an element of the position profile that would give you specific results. In this hypothetical case, the person would be using the fictitious “Greyhair” customer support software. It may have been determined that the competency levels of this position does not require that previous skill experience is needed. Or there may be further concern that candidates with this skill profile already in place may prove to be disinterested in the opportunity you are trying to fill, but a search using “Greyhair” would certainly give you a list of names for direct recruiting or referrals. You could also develop a list of companies that use this software to add to your search string. After all, if they are using the same business-specific software, they are probably in the same business. By deleting “Greyhair” from the next search and using those companies’ names along with the “customer service” search string you have developed, you will probably find a candidate pool of relevant resumes, and not just “a lot” of resumes. You may also develop a string of other buzzwords or skill criteria used by other companies to add to your own. I realize that using buzzwords, such as “Greyhair” in this instance, is no stroke of genius. You do it all the time. But too many recruiters use buzzwords merely to create lists of candidates, and ignore the other information such buzzwords can provide. Be a detective and search for clues. But how are you going to search for subjective skills? How do you find candidates based on what they are as a person and match aspirations without having to first develop a list of three hundred prospects and call each of them? On your own corporate website or print-media-based advertisement you can have an application that asks for data that could help you find the right personality fit, but that only assists you in sorting the candidates that come to you. It does not help you in your search for them. Therein lies one of the major issues in developing searches and search strings: sometimes it’s a question of using the correct tool, not merely always using the same tool better. Boolean search strings may not always be the best course of action. Using the department of unemployment, high school recruiting, junior college recruiting, open houses, job fairs, or pumping up your employee referral program and other resources may well prove more to be more effective for recruiting certain positions than word searches on the Web. Some positions are less about skills and more about the person. The Internet can be a time-saving recruiting tool; it can also we a phenomenal waste of time when it’s used to recruit for opportunities that are more subjective in profile than objective. Boolean logic can only search for what the candidate tells you, it cannot search for the unwritten or the unspoken. Companies that rely on “years experience” seem to assume that competencies grow merely as a function of repetition, like check writing, and that all experiences occurring within a prescribed time frame are of equal value. “Years experience” has also been used to match compensation with experience levels ó again, the assumption being that a highly competent person representing the top 10% of their profession with only two years experience should be paid less than a person of marginal skills with five years experience. If this is your corporate philosophy, I may have the answer to that pesky retention issue you are trying to resolve. But even if you agree with the above for the purpose of compensation, there is a significant difference. Compensation is the science of evaluating known quantities against established criteria to assign a value. Recruiting is the art of searching for a specific element without prior knowledge of its location, or even of its actual existence. Even compensation charts allow a wide range to cover differing competency levels. Should recruiting do any less in developing searches? So, how do you search out competencies? Every position, company, and industry has its own unique vocabulary and yardsticks to measure success. The same competency test used in the financial services industry probably would be a dismal failure in the medical services field. The issue in constructing successful searches is not to be found in the tool, but in the person using the tool. If you allow the recruiting process to become a repetitive task using the same time-worn procedures you’ve always used, then lackluster performance is nearly assured. “Years experience” as a search tool in recruiting harkens back to the days of “personnel” being an isolated group of frustrated functionaries. It is the personification of make-it-simple-for-me recruiting. With the tools available to a recruiter today, the boundaries of your impact are limited only by your willingness to be creative and your desire to be effective. As with many bad ideas, “years experience” is an institution not only for HR/staffing, but also for hiring managers. It was the yardstick used when they were hired and the yardstick they have used to hire since then. It’s like an old sweater. But one thing about old sweaters: they tend to be more comfortable than warm. So for the next job search, ask your hiring manager what the most important factor in the next hire is: age or competence. Then start building the position description based on the answer. Have a great day recruiting.

Ken Gaffey ( is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services ( and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE,, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.


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