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Young blood or an old hand? The timeless question when hiring new staff

If you’ve ever been involved in the hiring process, you’ve probably been faced with a difficult choice: is it better to hire an enthusiastic beginner or a seasoned professional?

In recent months, we’ve taken on several new staff here in the Content team at the Yardstick Agency. Some are experienced writers while many of them are fresh graduates. This got me thinking, especially since it’s only been a year since I myself joined as a graduate hire, about the choice between youth and experience.

As a history enthusiast, I’ve always believed that there’s nothing new under the sun. That’s why I thought that looking back to the past might help to find the answer to this age-old question.

Hiring an apprentice in the Middle Ages could be a big risk to master craftsmen

While in the modern day we benefit from mass production, for hundreds of years almost all goods were produced by individual artisans. Whether you needed a pair of shoes or a shiny new suit of armour, you would have to find an expert and have it made bespoke.

Many items, especially luxury goods, took a considerable amount of time and skill to produce. Imagine the effort that goes into forging an ornate longsword for a knight, or a fine silk gown for a duchess. Even for a skilled worker, the task could easily take weeks.

Maintaining a good reputation was incredibly important for medieval craftsmen, as word spreads quickly in small communities. In an age when people rarely travelled far from their hometown, you can imagine the devastating impact that being caught selling poor-quality wares could have on a business.

For this reason, when a master craftsman needed to increase production, they would almost always hire an experienced worker as they knew they could be relied on for quality. Training a beginner to become proficient in a craft can take several years, and many masters were unwilling to take the risk as any drop in quality could harm their reputation.

Instead, they tended to hire temporary workers who already had a reasonable knowledge of the job but not the capital to set up their own business. These were known as journeymen, from the French word “journée”, meaning day, as they were essentially a day labourer.

Hiring these experienced workers allowed the master craftsmen to rapidly increase production, for example if they had to fulfil a large order very quickly. While hiring an apprentice may have had long-term benefits, it was often safer to hire an old hand.

Rapid changes in technology made Victorians value younger and more flexible workers

This way of thinking began to change in the 19th century as the rapid development of new technologies began to change the way that people worked. Much like how the internet revolutionised the modern workplace, the invention of machinery had the same impact on the Victorian economy.

The speed of innovation and progress could be startling, as some machines might be outdated only a few years after they were introduced. This meant that flexibility and willingness to learn new skills became highly sought after when hiring workers.

As such, many employers began to disregard older and more experienced applicants due to a belief that they were stuck in their ways. You can see this mindset in the interviews done by Henry Mayhew, a contemporary journalist.

His book, London Labour and the London Poor (which you can buy here), offers a fascinating glimpse into the lives of ordinary men and women and is a must-read for anyone with an interest in the Victorian era. Take this testimony of a carpenter, for example, who had almost fifty years of experience under his belt but struggled to find work:

“In most shops the moment a man puts the glasses on, it’s over with him. It wasn’t so when I first knew London. Masters then said, ‘Let me have an old man, one who knows something’. Now it’s, ‘Let me have a young man, I must have a strong fellow, an old one won’t do’.”

Hiring younger workers allowed business owners to instil them with good habits

As it became obvious that flexibility would be an important trait in new workers, many industrialists began to hire younger men and women. One of these people was Josiah Wedgwood, who you might remember from my previous blog in which I explained how clever marketing helped him to turn his brand into a household name.

One of the key tenets of Wedgwood’s business strategy was to ensure that he stayed at the cutting edge of fashion, which meant flexibility was important.

For this reason, Wedgwood typically hired teenage apprentices for the important task of painting his pottery, instead of experienced artists who may have old habits that needed changing.

Hiring staff with little prior experience allowed him to train them from scratch with his own way of doing things. This meant that when he needed to change designs, his workers were much more able to quickly adapt.

The choice largely depends on what you need from your new hire

As you can see from these historical case studies, both hiring strategies have pros and cons. That’s why it’s important to consider the issue carefully.

Taking on someone with prior experience can be useful if you need to increase your output very quickly, as they should already have most of the skills that they need. However, they may also have old habits that you need to spend time ironing out.

On the other hand, since graduates don’t have any preconceived ideas about the role, you have the opportunity to mould them and create good habits. For example, if your company has a specific way of doing things, it may quickly become second nature to them as they have never known anything else.

Surrounding yourself with capable and reliable teammates is an important part of making sure that your business succeeds. That’s why if you’re considering hiring new staff in the near future, you may want to think carefully about the decision to ensure you make the right choice.

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