If David Williams is impressed by someone — anyone — he’ll extend a job offer. That’s how the CEO of Fishbowl, an inventory software maker in Orem, Utah, wound up working alongside both his electrician and a guy who sold him a snowboard.
“I’ve hired carpenters and instrument makers,” Williams said. “I never look at a résumé; I never care about what they’ve done before. It’s how I feel about them at the time of our engagement.”
This process works: Twelve years after accepting an entry-level position, Williams’ electrician is now the company’s vice president of development. Fishbowl has become one of the fast-growing software companies in Utah, according to Inc. magazine; it has won awards from Deloitte, MountainWest Capital and Red Herring Global. More broadly, an employee leaves the 130-person Fishbowl for performance–related reasons only once every two or three years.
Williams attributes the company’s meteoric success to his hiring strategy, which favors fit and enthusiasm over experience. Taking a risk and hiring someone without the usual established industry chops engenders a stronger sense of loyalty, Williams said. That’s a precious trait around Utah’s so-called “Silicon Slopes,” where competition for tech workers is as fierce as Silicon Valley.
Fishbowl is hardly alone in filling its ranks with industry newbies and developing that talent internally. Human resources professionals and hiring managers are beginning to find that less may be more when it comes to a potential employee’s specific industry experience. That’s because skill sets today must be updated more than ever, thanks to an ever-changing economy riding the waves of always advancing technology.
“The rapid, continuous change of products and services means that lifelong learning is a critical element of the workforce,” said Wendy Chase, founder of Uncharted Group, a talent management consulting firm in Carmel, Indiana. “It’s something all of us have come to expect.”
That includes business leaders tasked with filling their talent pipelines. If the newest marketing innovation or technology tool just over the horizon will require learning and development for all employees, it means an industry veteran and a relative newcomer could easily find themselves on equal footing. To this end, prior work experience starts to matter less for certain companies than an eagerness to learn, adapt and embrace the cutting edge.
Help Wanted — Fast
The emerging open-mindedness around experience is also a response to the very real talent gap many hiring managers face nowadays. Consider the technology industry: In just three years, the United States will have 1.4 million open programming jobs, but only 400,000 computer science grads, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And a 2016 survey of more than 1,000 HR managers and recruiters found that 86 percent found it challenging to hire technical talent and 75 percent think the time-to-fill for roles has increased in the past three years. As tech increasingly blurs into all industries — from automobile manufacturing to educational services — that talent pinch is felt far and wide. As a result, businesses must take matters into their own hands.
“Mobile developers are hard to find — we couldn’t hire enough people,” said Erika Carlson, Detroit Labs’ director of training. “So we decided to bring in terrific people who have no software experience and teach them the fundamentals.”
Over three years, Detroit Labs has hired about 80 percent of the program’s four dozen graduates; the majority are still with the company as developers. Carlson is quick to point out that although the program doesn’t look for experience, that doesn’t mean hiring managers aren’t selective about who comes onboard. Instead of focusing on technical skills, interviewers double down on ferreting out great communicators and problem-solvers that are collegial, too.
“I can teach someone to be a developer, but I can’t teach them to be someone I want to sit with for 40 hours a week,” Carlson said.
The Downside of Unlearning
Skipping the conventional candidate with loads of industry experience also saves managers the potential headache of “untraining” someone who has spent years following a different company’s protocol. Jerri Lee George, a 30-year Denver-area catering veteran and author of the book “CaterSavvy,” said she goes out of her way to hire people who are newbies to the catering field rather than seasoned professionals. That means a little more work upfront, she said, but it’s well worth it. Inexperienced employees know to ask questions and seek clarifications, whereas veterans are more likely to assume this gig wants it done the same as their last. Starting from scratch, George said, “ensures the dishes will be prepared to my specifications — not to those of their last job.”
Of course, if business leaders are going to benefit from an inexperienced hire’s enthusiasm and loyalty, they’ve got to invest heavily in training. Anna Stout, owner of marketing agency Astute Communications in Nashville, Tennessee, hired a woman with no SEO experience to help out part-time. A few months later, she became a full-time employee and today oversees the agency’s entire SEO business. “The most important factor for us was going into it with a robust training plan, providing learning resources and outlining expectations,” Stout said.
Feedback also needs to be fast and furious during the training. At Beautiful Destinations, a creative agency based in New York and London, one in four employees doesn’t have any past agency experience.
That hasn’t stopped the agency from locking in clients like Airbnb, Marriott and Mastercard — or from racking up more than 13 million followers for its social-first photos and videos. “From the start, it’s given us a really distinct advantage,” said co-founder Jeremy Jauncey. “Instead of sitting in focus groups wondering what young millennials care about, we’ve put our content creation in the hands of these millennials.”
The videographers and photographers have an insatiable appetite for travel — most book back-to-back client engagements and stop over in the U.S. for a week or less each month. But all that enthusiasm and energy for the work also comes with a sharp learning curve. “When someone hasn’t had experience in a professional working environment, you can’t assume anything and have to be ready to give that training: Here’s how you stick to a brief, here’s how you engage with a client, here’s what’s appropriate or expected,” Chauncey said.
Recently, an inexperienced photographer hadn’t secured the necessary permits the agency needed to shoot a historical landmark. That didn’t affect them on social media, but when the client liked the images enough to want them for print and TV campaigns, Chauncey had to explain that the rookie’s oversight would mean a monthslong delay. “So then the question is: How do we prevent this? How do we tweak the training or create the right process?” Chauncey said. “Raw talent can get better and better under guidance. But if your instinct is to yell, ‘What were you thinking?!” or start looking for someone with 20 years of experience instead, you’ll never get there.”
Kate Rockwood is a business journalist based in Chicago. To comment, email email@example.com.
This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Talent Economy Quarterly. To view the digital edition of the journal, click here.
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