Does employment history matter when hiring developers?
The concept of recruitment is finding the right person for the job. In the past, various methods have been used to achieve this. In the tech and development space, employment history is often weighted as highly as a candidate’s technical skills. But is it really that important?
Almost a quarter of developers surveyed in Stack Overflow’s 2019 Developer Survey claimed to have never even finished their bachelor’s degree. Of those who did obtain a degree, about one third did not study anything related to software development.
Most developers have less than five years of professional coding experience and thirty percent have less than two.
These numbers suggest the skepticism regarding prior qualifications and job history in the tech field may be warranted. Let’s dig a bit deeper to find out why.
By the end of this article, you will know:
- The relevance of employment history
- The various ways to verify employment history
- What things employment history doesn’t explain
- Criteria other than job history to rely on
- How to improve your approach to hiring
What employment history can tell us
Your employment history or job history is usually the major concern for any potential employer. On the face of it, this career experience determines if you have the necessary credentials to do the job.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics in the U.S. indicates that 95% of recruitment is done to fill existing positions. This means that turnover is high and staff retention is an increasingly difficult task.
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Employers generally look for candidates who fill their skill requirements without needing to train them, although finding these candidates is another challenge. Selecting a candidate with a relevant employment history in the same field is considered a safe bet. However, not every candidate will have the skills your company requires, especially as a developer.
So a person’s job history can help us see if a candidate will be a good match with the chosen employer. But what other information can be helpful in sorting the good from the bad? Employers are also interested in the length a candidate has been in their previous roles. Why? If an applicant has been working in many short-term positions it can imply that person is an unstable or disloyal employee.
Interestingly though, as of last year, workers in the tech field are the second least tenured professional employees and the industry also suffers from the highest turnover.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2018, the average number of years a U.S employee stays with their current employer is 4.3 years. Employee tenure is higher amongst older employees, with those aged 25-34 having a median tenure of 2.8 years.
“When the bulk of the workforce constituency was the Baby Boomers–stoic, long-term-oriented and collectivistic in nature–job hopping was highly frowned upon,” says David Parnell, a legal consultant, communication coach and author:
“It was the norm to stay with an employer for 30 years, grab your pension and ride off quietly into the sunset. With the entrance of the dot.com bubble and Gen X (and eventually Gen Y) came a much more instant gratification, self-oriented nature to the workforce.”
Many companies only offer reviews and promotions once or twice a year. This practice doesn’t allow for swift upward trajectory in the corporate world. Ryan Kahn, a career coach, and author of Hired! told Forbes that, “Job hopping is replacing the concept of climbing the corporate ladder.”
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Somewhat surprisingly, job hopping can be rewarding for people in the tech realm—if it is done for the right reasons, says Laurie Lopez, a partner and senior general manager in the IT Contracts department at WinterWyman,
“For those in technology, it allows them the opportunity to gain valuable technical knowledge in different environments and cultures, especially for those in development. While job hopping has a negative connotation; this is more about a resource providing value to a company, and then realizing there is nothing more to learn in that environment. In order to keep their skills fresh, it is necessary for technologists to remain current in a highly competitive market.”
To support the plight of the employment history job-hopper, labor economists have forecasted that the average Millennial will have five to seven careers over their lifetimes in contrast to Baby Boomers having had a total of five to seven jobs. If a candidate does have considerable or a worrying amount of gaps in their employment history, it’s important to keep these in mind:
- Recheck your bias – often what you think adds up doesn’t amount to the answer
- Ask for clarification on the employment history gap
- Probe for more information (but avoid restricted topics)
- Factor in non-academic pursuits – there’s more to life than school!
How to verify employment history?
According to a CareerBuilder survey, 58% of hiring managers say they have caught incorrect information on applicant’s resumes. Without properly verifying a candidate’s employment history, a lot of time, money, and effort can be saved before offering a person the role of their dreams.
Now we are aware that this misleading information is more common than you’d expect, it’s important that as a business you are prepared. Nearly 1 in 3 new hires look for new employment within their first six months of starting. Unless you’re an organization focused on employee development, these numbers do pose a risk to employee longevity.
Consider these two methods to verify employment history:
1. D-I-Y Employment history verification
Undertaking an employment history verification check is likely your best option.
It may be a little time consuming but it’s simple and worth the effort.
- Call all references listed on the resume – have a list of standard questions to ask to every employer.
- Search for contact details independently to ensure the real contact information is consistent with what’s provided on the resume.
- Request pay records and tax stubs – check state law to see what you’re able to request. It’s important to ask candidates to redact sensitive information such as social security numbers from these documents.
- In some jurisdictions when conducting a background check, it is obligatory to obtain written consent from the candidate. Explain that the information found may determine whether he or she will be hired.
2. Use a third-party employment verification service
When deciding on how to verify employment history, the alternative method is to use a legitimate employment verification service.
- This can save your business the time and energy involved in the process, however, it does not come without a cost.
- However, the results are not immediate – the time factor may play a different role here.
- Generally, the findings are more thorough and the service may have access to information your HR team might not.
- Ensuring the service is compliant with all applicable laws is a must.
What employment history doesn’t clarify
The blunt truth is that writing skills and resumes do not correspond to being a talented developer. The market for tech professionals is becoming more competitive, as the demand for skilled workers grows; without the global pool of candidates increasing. IT workers are the “sixth most difficult professional group to recruit” and “45% of global employers report talent shortages in the field, up from 40% in 2017.”
At the end of the day, resumes focus on experience over skills. Resumes are organized by job titles and because of this, can be misleading. What’s important is being able to convey a candidate’s most important traits, their technical skills.
A 1998 study showed that ‘work-sample tests’ were the most efficient method to assess a candidate’s performance. This entails giving the candidate a sample piece of work, similar to what they’d be doing at the actual job. What this research did conclude was that a combination of techniques is more reliable than the use of just one. For example, a test of cognitive ability coupled with a work-sample test or an assessment of conscientiousness is more accurate to predict a candidate’s job suitability.
Luckily, there are tools out there that help ease the pain of combining these assessments to trial on prospective applicants.
Another study by the New York Times found that intelligence counted for very little when working in teams. It illustrates that teams dominated by very ‘intelligent’ engineers, using standard IQ tests, performed consistently less well than teams that were:
- more collaborative
- ranked higher on the ability to read emotional intelligence, and
- having a higher proportion of diversity
These factors should be at least a consideration in the hiring process due to their relevance in a team-orientated environment.
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Alternatives to relying on employment history
Bottom line, the earlier you assess coding skills in your recruitment process, the shorter your Time-to-Hire is. Evaluating the technical skills of potential candidates prior to arranging a face-to-face interview can save a whole lot of hassle. The beauty of this method can help discover candidates whose resumes don’t necessarily jump off the page. As well as eliminating the candidates whose resumes masquerade their lack of technical proficiency.
It’s no secret that developers are sick and tired of the whiteboard coding interviews and irrelevant algorithmic questions. These algorithmic skills tests represent a Computer Science problem rather than a specific programming ability. It’s true they have little to do with assessing a developer’s competence to produce the work they’d be eventually paid to do.
As developers are not necessarily great at selling themselves, you could miss out on a fantastic candidate because they fail to impress on paper.
Here are some alternatives to look at before giving the green light *gasp* or red:
1. Check out their programming portfolio/ GitHub account
A personal portfolio is the best way for a developer to showcase their coding skills and any passionate developer should have one. GitHub acts as an online showroom where developers work on open source projects. Importantly, it will give you an indication of how the candidate collaborates with their peers.
2. Find out about their use of Stack Overflow
Stack Overflow is like the Quora of computer programming. A good reputation rate will indicate a developer that is an active user on the site, one that asks questions and provides answers thanks to their expertise.
3. Live coding interview
A live coding interview can be a tough challenge. They allow recruiters to observe a candidate’s logic, how they think and their ability to explain why and critically, their ability to code under pressure.
Coding tests are a popular way to screen developers. These tests force the candidates to code through practical problems, enabling recruiters to assess their coding skills objectively and efficiently.
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Improve your approach to hiring
It’s very difficult to improve your companies recruitment strategies if you can’t tell whether the candidates you select will become good employees. There must be a way to measure which employees are the best ones. Surveyed employers claim the main reason they don’t examine whether their practices lead to better hires is that measuring employee performance is difficult.
Almost all employers have some form of performance review. If you don’t trust them, try asking supervisors the simple question of, “Do you regret hiring this person, would you hire them again?”. Organizations that refuse to do their due diligence by reviewing the methods in which they hire are severely behind the 8-ball.
Companies such as Amazon rely heavily on empirical interview data to refine and improve their interviewing process every year. The growing prevalence of Amazon’s group interview format suggests that this new method has proven successful.
So before considering a candidate because of their superior employment history, or their glowing references, remember the fundamental reason behind the hire. The candidate is being hired to perform a role, a role that you have the necessary tools to assess their performance.
Patterns have changed in the last 30 years and someone’s job history doesn’t reveal what it used to. Keep this information in mind when searching for your next developer: banish the guesswork and be confident you’ve unearthed yourself a diamond.
For more assistance, check out DevSkiller’s free e-book, “Hack the process of recruiting programmers”.