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Entry-Level-Experience Requirements Could Be Hurting Your Hiring

Are your experience requirements too high for entry-level jobs?

A woman sitting at a desk with her head on her hand.

​There are more jobs available in the United States than people officially considered unemployed, yet the underemployment rate among recent college graduates—those ages 22-27 who are either unemployed or in jobs that don't require their education and skills—remains at over 40 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Young adults ages 22-27 without a college degree are even worse off, with an unemployment rate about double of those with degrees.

Some emerging professionals seeking entry-level jobs are faced with a daunting conundrum—companies are asking new graduates to already have years of experience before they even apply for entry-level jobs, making it more difficult for some young adults to gain a foothold in the labor market.

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"For recent college graduates, nothing is more frustrating than applying for entry-level jobs that require experience," said Brian Weed, CEO of Avenica, a recruiting firm focused on young professionals just out of school. "Unfortunately, employers are limiting their ability to hire a large group of high-performing, entry-level people by setting the barrier of experience too high for many otherwise-qualified candidates. This hiring strategy, which may help simplify the recruiting process by screening out more applicants, is holding back companies that need the best talent at the entry level to stay competitive."

A recent analysis of over 95,000 job postings by job-matching software firm TalentWorks revealed how difficult it can be for newly minted grads to find an entry-level job within their experience level. The research found that 61 percent of all full-time jobs seeking entry-level employees required at least three years or more of experience.

Similarly, when labor market analytics company Burning Glass Technologies analyzed 25 million entry-level job postings from 2010 to 2016, it found an increase in the number of soft and hard skills being demanded.

"In some cases, employers have the misconception that if a person learns a skill somewhere else, that means they will require less time to be productive," said Steve Wolfe, executive vice president of operations at Addison Group, a staffing and consulting firm in Chicago. "Sometimes that's true, sometimes it's not. Often new hires still have to practice that skill in a completely different way in a new environment." 

Alicia Modestino, associate professor at Northeastern University School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, noted that the practice of inflating experience requirements ebbs and flows with the business cycle. During the Great Recession, employers had their pick of skilled applicants from a pool stocked with candidates, said the former senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, where she led research on labor market policy issues.

"We saw some employers increase experience requirements during the recession and decrease them during the recovery," she said. "But another set of employers increased their requirements during the recession and have maintained them since then." The organizations with those "sticky requirements" tend to be hiring for high-skilled occupations, which also require higher education and advanced degrees, she said.

Experience Not the Only Predictor of Success

There are many other indicators of future success besides work experience, experts said.

"Try to recognize that skills can be taught; personality cannot," Wolfe said. "If you find an individual with the right culture fit—meaning they are someone who will add value and create a presence that helps you get better at what you do, stop and ask yourself, 'Am I being realistic passing on this candidate?' What if your key competitors take the time to invest in that person?"

Weed explained that organizations should base entry-level job postings on required skills and competencies—some of which can be taught―while making it clear that all interested candidates are encouraged to apply. Removing the experience requirement for entry-level roles doesn't mean employers should be hiring on instinct. Instead of scanning for experience criteria on a resume, recruiters and hiring managers could be trained to look for personal traits and attributes that align well with the role's objectives, as well as critical thinking and interpersonal communication skills, coachability and motivation.

"Companies should prepare probing questions about transferable skills for interviewing candidates without professional work experience," Weed said. "Interviewers should ask these candidates for real-life examples of how they applied these skills successfully in a nonprofessional position, volunteer setting or team-oriented activity. These skills are often a more accurate measure of a candidate's future success than work experience or even a college degree."

Wolfe said that when a client asks for a certain set of skills and requirements in a job ad, "One of the first things we ask is, 'How many people currently working in those roles would meet that criteria?' More often than not, they can't honestly say anyone meets all their requirements."

Addison Group helps the employer identify the highest-performing employees on the team, who serve as the model for the job posting, he said. "It's a healthy conversation to have—it helps employers to stop and look at it from a different perspective," Wolfe said.   

Professional services firm EY is constantly filling entry-level positions and puts new hires through "a lot of formal and on-the-job training" instead of requiring experience for those roles, said Larry Nash, who leads recruiting for EY in the U.S. "The labor market right now is very competitive," he said. "If organizations aren't finding the talent they need, they've got to look at alternative approaches," which could include broadening hiring requirements, hiring talent with the fundamental skills and training them to do the job, or sourcing from alternative talent pools.

Another solution is cooperative, experiential education. At Northeastern, the school and participating employers provide students with up to three six-month, full-time, paid work experiences. "Students get the experience they need, and employers get the customized experience that they want their candidates to have, without the long-term commitment of a permanent hire," Modestino said.


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