Experience Counts, but for What?

So, how long did it take you to get that all-important, resume-saving experience? If you’re a recent graduate, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Did you ever sit through a job interview virtually begging the person to give you a chance to prove yourself? Yeah...me neither.

Actually, I don’t mean to brag, but the title of my very first job after college was “Vice President”. Although, truth be told, that had less to do with actual job responsibilities than the fact that I was the one who ordered the stationery and business cards. But, regardless of the title, the position was priceless not simply for the paycheck I stuffed in my pocket, but rather, in what was learned in hands-on business experience that I was able to tuck under my belt.

At this point in my life, I’ve held a variety of different jobs, some with more responsibility than others, but all had one thing in common: a need for prior experience. Not simply because the job itself was tough, but as I’ve told several classrooms on Career Day, many times it wasn’t just about being able to do the job, but being able to win the job in the first place. To obtain one previous position, I had to beat out more than two hundred other qualified applicants. And having an abundance of applicable experience certainly helped in that battle.

But experience isn’t everything.

Case in point is this years’ hotly contested Presidential elections. While the economy, the war on terror, and the struggle for energy independence are all major policy issues, a focus of many political debates has become "experience". I find it interesting that while the McCain camp spent a lot of time hammering away on Barack Obama’s limited time in elected office (too little experience?), Obama spent an equal amount of effort stressing that McCain is too much of a Washington insider (too much experience?). Meanwhile, both picked Vice-Presidential nominees at the opposite end of the experience spectrum.

Lost in the rhetoric is any substantial debate over defining what qualifies as “enough” experience. But don’t look to history to help you sort that one out. Our Presidential voting record doesn’t seem to offer much clarity on the issue. After all, in 1976 a man who was a war veteran and lawyer, who had twenty-four years in the US House of Representatives (including eight as Minority Leader), and who held the office of Vice President of the United States for one year and President for three, lost the election to another man who was only a State Senator for three years, and a Governor for four (although he was a Naval officer, farmer and teacher as well).

And after four years of holding the office, that man lost the election to a former actor who only had eight years playing the role of Governor.

Yet another man lost his bid for re-election after four years in office as President, eight years as Vice President, four years in the House of Representatives, a year as Director of the CIA, two years as Ambassador to the United Nations, and a multitude of private business experience (not to mention being a decorated war veteran). And the guy who beat him out only had about half as much experience, with eleven years as Governor and two as a State Attorney General.

When that guy concluded two terms, his Vice President of eight years, who also had another eight in the US Senate and a further eight in the House, lost out in his bid to become President to a guy who was only a Governor for five years, although he did have the all-important private business experience and some time in the National Guard.

Clearly, the American people have some other qualifications on their minds when they punch their ballots. The US Constitution only has three main qualifications: You must be a natural born citizen; you must be at least 35 years old; and you must have been a permanent resident for at least 14 years. So what’s the story?

Well, personally, my qualifications would go something like this: I would like my President to have at least four years experience in some sort of leadership role at a “for profit” company. But, I would also prefer that he/she have another four years at a non-profit charitable organization. I would like my President to have a close-knit family so that he/she has a better understanding of the needs of aging parents, as well as growing kids. I would like my President to have gone to college, so he/she knows the stress of performing under the pressure of final exams as well as the strain of financing tuition, books, and a running bar tab.

I’m willing to overlook a candidate’s misguided adventures in youth as long as they can back it up with a track record that shows how they learned from their mistakes. As I suggested in my last article, I’d like my president to be financially viable, as an example to those still striving for the American dream. In addition it’s imperative that they display an equally strong moral and ethical standing.

When push comes to shove, most of today’s candidates have a majority of those bases covered. So what it really comes down to is trust. Trust that the candidate will do what they promise. Trust that they will surround themselves with the right people, who are knowledgeable and wise. And trust that they will then listen to those people. Trust that they are seeking the position for the right reasons and will hold the reigns of power with a consciousness of the will of those who elected them.

It’s about trust, more than it was ever about experience, and more than it will ever be about any given issue or topic. And in that race, as far as I’m concerned, we’re a long way from establishing a frontrunner.

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Volume 4, Issue 19, Posted 9:03 AM, 09.06.2008