Five to seven years of experience is the magic number. I recently spoke to the director of a mid-sized agency in Milwaukee at a BMA event. He had a growing agency and needed to build his account service team. However, he had hit an impasse. He could not find anyone with the 5 to 7 years experience he desired. It is a conversation I have had with countless agency and corporate clients. I thought I would share my thoughts on the topic here. I hope it is helpful in framing the issue and brainstorming potential solutions.
Here is my analysis in a not-so-small nut shell:
- Why 5-to-7’s have been the magic number
- Where did all the 5-to-7’s go?
- How this shortage negates the 5-to-7 magic
- Why these 5-to-7’s are even more magical
- Light at the end of the tunnel
- Another tunnel after that
- Rethinking hiring
Why 5-to-7 is the magic number
For decades HR and hiring managers have gravitated to this candidate profile to build the bedrock of their teams. 5-to-7’s bring a mix of the positive aspects of both junior level go-getters and seasoned senior pros. Here are just a few of the elements 5-to-7’s bring to the table.
- They are pre-trained with low ramp-up investment or time.
- They have been around the block (at least twice). They have real-world experience in the profession or industry.
- They have a level of business acumen and are able to navigate within systems.
- They have a track record that can help predict how they will produce in the future.
- They have started to develop a network of colleagues and resources.
- They are still open to learning.
- They are still climbing and striving to advance in their careers.
- They are entering a life phase (Marriage? Kids? Going back to school?) that would foster retention. They want stability and to grow with a company.
- They have held or could begin to take on management roles.
- There are generally lots of candidates within this experience range.
- And let’s not forget . . . 5 to 7’s salaries are generally lower than more senior level staff.
Sounds great, right? It is. And it has been a very successful strategy. But it isn’t working as well right now. Why?
Where did all the 5-to-7s go?
Like a scene out of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the answer is…5-to-7’s were never born.
Actually, they were born; they just couldn’t get a job in marketing or advertising.
Think back to 7 years ago. If you graduated with a degree related to marketing, creative or communications in the year 2002, you were more likely to be a barista than a junior copywriter or marketing assistant.
Classically, each year has a big cohort of recent grads who are hired together. They learn the business from the bottom up. Some are weeded out. Some decide to try other careers. The ones that thrive will have paid their dues, learned the biz, and “apprenticed” under a solid structure of management. They are ready to take the next career step.
For this to work, you need a large “freshman class” of junior candidates.
After the dot.com bust and 9/11, the economy hit a wall. Marketing, creative and communications professions were hit disproportionately hard. Struggling to retain the staff they had, companies simply could not afford to hire new grads and invest the training and vetting time. They had to use the work horses they could count on (yep – the 5-to-7’s of the day).
So, smaller cohorts then mean a smaller pool of 5-to-7 year candidates now.
How this shortage negates the 5-7 magic
HR and hiring managers still want to follow the tried and true practices of the past. They want their 5-to-7’s and they want them now!
But no amount of protesting to Clarence the guardian angel will allow us to go back in time to boost the 2002-2004 cohort. Government 10 year employment stats
The total population of that group is smaller. We are competing for fewer people. But that is not all: the current 5-to-7’s are fundamentally different from the classic 5-to-7’s.
How this cohort is different:
- Not all 5 to 7 years are equal. Some individuals with 5 to 7 years of professional experience did not have all 5-7 years within the related discipline. They are not as seasoned in the role.
- Others are more advanced. Many of those that started in the early 2000’s were relied on to wear many hats and to take on responsibility earlier. Therefore, they are further along in their careers.
- The age/life stage sync is out of perfect alignment. Many of these individuals had to delay their start in the profession. Therefore, they are older than the classic 5-to-7’s and at a different life stage.
- This group had to do more with less. Therefore, they tend to be strong generalists.
- Because they are in short supply and high demand, the current 5-to-7’s can command higher salaries.
Why these 5-to-7’s are even more magical
The 5-to-7’s who started their careers in 2002-2004 were able to gain solid experience. They worked in departments stretched to capacity. They were given opportunities well beyond those they would have had at other times. This may have included managerial experience, coordinating with cross-functional teams, and assisting with strategy. They also had a chance to simply do a lot of work at top speed to compensate for small staffs.
Therefore, when a company hires one of these 5-to-7’s, they are often getting a powerhouse of experience.
That company will also pay more for these super 5-to-7’s.
So, you are a hiring manager and you want to build a team. You want a 5-to-7 candidate. But you can’t find any that hit the mark. Their salaries are out of line with your budget. They have had either too much or not enough experience. They are unwilling to make a move from their current companies. What do you do?
Think creatively. There is no reason to stay locked to this single strategy if it is not working for you.
- Hire a more experienced candidate. Those with 10-15 years of experience may be a solid fit. They may also be more competitively “priced” with the 5-to-7’s.
- Hire multiple junior candidates and “grow your own” cohort.
- Hire individuals with experience outside of your niche.
- Restructure work to allow a different mix of workers, including freelance/contract specialists.
- Pony up the cash and adjust the pay grades to gain a superstar 5-to-7 employee.
Light at the end of the tunnel
After 2004, the marketing, creative and communications fields began to rebuild. That means we will have only a few years to wait for this trend to right itself.
The new group of 5-to-7’s is just around the corner.
Another tunnel after that
Looking ahead, we can see two trends looming in the future:
- The same issue will follow the 2002-2004 cohort throughout their career stages. Therefore, HR and hiring managers will be wise to step up efforts to build succession planning for their mid- and senior-level manager positions within the next 10+ years.
- With the new economic woes of today, we can anticipate a potential reduction in the 2009-2011 entry level cohort, and therefore, a smaller 5-to-7 group starting in 2014.
There are lessons to be learned from the upheavals in our profession over the last 10 years.
- Flexibility: Being able to veer from the tried and true path if it is not working for the organization
- Creativity: Making use of the talent and skills available
- Development: Fostering and retention of the talent we have in our teams and in the profession.