It's a classic Catch-22 for first-time job seekers: Getting a good job in today's market requires work experience, but it's impossible to gain that requisite experience without already having a job. In some highly-competitive industries, new graduates often resort to taking unpaid internships or positions well below their qualifications just to get their foot in the door, which also forces them to rely on financial support from their families to survive.
Requiring young applicants to "pay their dues" in this way may be a time-honored tradition, but it isn't necessarily good for business. In fact, according to a study conducted jointly by Ohio State University, New York University and the University of Pennsylvania, an abundance of work experience can actually hurt employee performance in the long run.
Tracking 711 workers and job applicants at two insurance company call centers, the study compares the employees' performance evaluations and skill ratings to their work histories and experience at prior companies. As most hiring managers would expect, seasoned pros typically possess more skills and knowledge than their wet-behind-the-ears counterparts. But according to the study, these benefits are often countered by other, negative factors which help to level the playing field. Study co-author Steffanie Wilk notes that "organizations pay a premium for workers with job experience that will allow them to just step in and start contributing immediately," but evidence suggests that they may be better served by widening their search as "experience brings unforeseen costs as well as benefits."
So what exactly are the costs associated with work experience? Wilk's study finds that while veteran staffers bring positive qualities to a position, they often retain many bad habits picked up at old jobs. Hanging on to these tendencies can hurt performance and make it difficult to adapt to the way business is done at a new company. On the other hand, employees with no previous experience (and thus no bad habits to forget) may have more to learn, but encounter less trouble fitting in. In addition, over time a worker's previous experience becomes less relevant, while their negative qualities can linger and continue to hurt job performance.
Of course this doesn't mean HR departments should immediately restrict their recruiting to college campuses. Wilk notes that while "bad habits from previous jobs don't die easily," the study's ultimate conclusion is that the positives that come with work experience still outweigh the negatives. However, she also points out that this finding only applies to the two surveyed call centers, and could be different for other organizations.
Ultimately Wilk believes that the key lesson of this study is the importance of adaptability: "Employees need to realize that not everything they learned in previous jobs is going to help them," and they need to adjust to new surroundings "even if that means unlearning techniques...developed in prior jobs." At the same time companies have a responsibility to re-think how they train employees. She notes that managers often assume "employees with previous experience don't need as much guidance and hand-holding as inexperienced workers," even though they may actually require more attention to help "shake off the ineffective habits from old jobs and learn how to best serve their new employer."
The study's creators hope that more research will help managers understand the ideal balance between work experience and adaptability in a job applicant. Regardless of the findings, however, it's likely that most college grads will continue to "pay their dues" in the workplace for the foreseeable future.