Experience matters when hiring – but so should youth, new ideas

Experience matters when hiring – but so should youth, new ideas

Young volunteer engineers at the Solar Energy Festival in Manila, Philippines.

By Sohail Hasnie

To address today’s development challenges, we need courage and innovation from young, inexperienced experts.

Are you qualified to work for the World Bank or ADB? May be not, especially if you are young and have little relevant experience. This is a problem.

Last August, I attended the Solar Energy Festival in Manila, where hundreds of young volunteer engineers in their 20s worked together to build solar streetlights for struggling communities in the Philippines. The two lead engineers I met were hands-on tinkerers, innovators and problem solvers, all in one. I was amazed by their enthusiasm, energy and eagerness to do something worthwhile. But when I wanted to invite them to speak at a conference, I realized that some of them were still in their final year of college and therefore not ‘qualified’ to be an ADB resource speaker or consultant.

Our system and processes are geared toward rewarding experience against potential. This way of thinking, though, won’t help us address current challenges like climate change, where innovation and new technology are key to accelerating efforts.

Albert Einstein once said, “We can’t solve our problems with the same thinking that created them”. We have to get out of fossil fuels and move to new clean technologies. The question is, how? How can multilateral development banks bring new technology and innovation in their operations if they don’t hire young, inexperienced people?

While I was making my case to recruit the young engineers, I remembered an ‘impossible’ task I did when I was a young engineer myself many years ago. My challenge was to design and build an extra floor on the roof of my boss’s house, which everyone told me could not be done. The house was over ten years old, and its second story was built on a 5-inch non-load-bearing wall. We could only build another floor on top, if the existing walls could bear the extra load or if we could insert new columns. Money was not a problem, and I had an army of experienced builders to help me.

I was a 22-year-old, bold, naïve, stupid, crazy as all in one –a fresh engineering graduate, who could solve all problems armed with his calculator and formulas! . I was someone who could only see solutions, never problems, and impossible was simply not part of his vocabulary. I was advised to stay away from the project as it was ‘a reputation risk.’ However, I did not have any reputation to protect, nor any experience to understand the risk.

I worked hard and sought advice from everyone, I knew, mostly young people who were like me – crazy and stupid, looking for problems to solve. Finally, after doing many calculations, I was convinced the new floor was indeed technically feasible. We propped up the roof with hydraulic jacks around each wall, removed the thin wall and built a new one. One wall at a time, a few inverted beams and lot of fun and physical stress later, it worked!

Today, three decades later, I may have gained much experience, but somehow lost the ability to take such risks. Over time I have learned see reasons why something may not work, rather than seeing only ways it could work. But in the faces of those young engineers in Manila I saw the courage I once had.

We can’t ignore we live in a world where one of the richest men is 31-year-old Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who may be one of the most creative minds in the world but clearly lacks the qualifications for an international financial analyst position at ADB, which requires at least 5 years of experience in the region and a business degree.

At multilateral development banks we take great pride in how we recruit our consultants, and experience plays a key role. While a retired energy specialist’s resume can be qualified for practically any ADB energy consulting position (new technology or old), hiring someone young is a challenge.

To address today’s development challenges, we need courage and innovation. We need people who understand new and ‘crazy’ technologies such as drones, organic LEDs, solar, batteries and electric vehicles. It’s time to look at one’s potential, and not just one’s past experience.

We need people who still want to solve problems that seem impossible, rather than say it can’t be done. Our climate will come from technology solutions that are either 5 years or less or have not been invented yet. To meet today’s needs, 15 years of relevant experience is not just irrelevant – it may even hinder one’s capacity to adapt to new technology. 

Einstein also said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge, as knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

Those who say ‘it can't be done’ should not stop those already doing it.