Knowledge is recognizing a good poker hand. Wisdom is knowing when to hold it and when to fold it.

Turn to the help wanted ads in almost any newspaper, and you'll see listing after listing asking for "three years experience ... minimum five years experience ... experienced person wanted." This holds true for blue-collar and white-collar positions alike.

The underlying mentality is hard to argue with. Most employers looking to fill a vacancy don't have the time or wherewithal to train a novice to handle the job, particularly for skilled trade positions. If you need a roofer, you can't very well take people off the street who have never installed a shingle in their lives and expect them to do so in a productive and safe manner without months if not years of at least on-the-job training.

It's right to value experience. Those of us with decades of experience - and I count myself among them - almost always know more tricks of the trade than people who haven't been around as long. We also are likely to have more in the way of wisdom, as opposed to knowledge.

Knowledge means having a grasp of myriad details applicable to any given job. A lot of whiz kids coming right out of college or trade school can have almost as much knowledge as veterans when it comes to working with the tools of the trade. However, few have the knack for identifying which details are most important in any given situation. That's where wisdom comes in, and it usually correlates with experience. Knowledge is recognizing a good poker hand. Wisdom is knowing when to hold it and when to fold it.

The Value of Veteran Employees

From the time we learned to walk and talk we've been taught that respect for elders is one of our culture's most enduring values. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who came before us. Despite what you are about to read, do not think for a moment that I will belittle the value of experience.

All this being said, be careful about going overboard in deference to veteran employees. I feel almost like a traitor to my demographic group in saying so, but intellectual honesty compels me to admit that longevity doesn't automatically confer knowledge, wisdom or competence. Sometimes longtime employees are as much a hindrance as an asset.

People with a lot of seniority often adhere to outmoded ideas and are reluctant to accept much-needed change. They are apt to do things a certain way simply because "that's the way we've always done it ... if it ain't broke don't fix it." Think of how many old-timers you've met who want nothing to do with computers. Maybe you're one of them yourself. I've got news for you. Anyone who doesn't try to maximize use of computers in their business in today's world is foolish. Listen to the youngsters in your company who are urging you to make more use of them.

Veteran employees form the backbone of most small businesses. Yet, their attitude often stifles creativity and progress. Maybe they get results, but maybe the results could be even better trying something different. Too often the veterans are more interested in protecting what they have than in striving for more. There's an old saying that when all you have to work with is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. That's the way many old-timers think. They know only one way of doing things, and are reluctant to try anything else.

This is not to suggest you should look to get rid of all the old folks and replace them with energetic youngsters. For one thing, that could leave you vulnerable to an age-discrimination lawsuit. Besides, most veterans do possess a storehouse of knowledge, wisdom and institutional memory you wouldn't want to dispense with.

The problem is that in too many small companies, seniority has become the only criterion for advancement. You make good old Joe the manager or foreman because he's been there the longest. Maybe it's also because he's slowing down a bit in the field. Sometimes you know deep down that he's not the best person for the job, but you feel obliged to reciprocate loyalty for his many years of service. Besides, you think Joe couldn't handle being supervised by someone half his age.

You should indeed reciprocate loyalty, reward seniority and accommodate veteran employees who may be breaking down physically. But you want to do it in ways that don't alienate the young talent in your organization or hamper your company's ability to progress.

This requires playing to everyone's individual strengths, young and old alike. For instance, some folks are "people persons" and some are not. Many mechanically minded individuals are happiest when they are solving technical problems in the field rather than supervising smart-aleck youngsters or dealing with paperwork. You don't want to put someone like that in charge of managing other people. Yet, that's what is routinely done throughout our economy. In small and big businesses alike, many people get promoted simply because "it's their turn."

Salary Considerations

In many cases, it's all about money. After all, you can't expect to pay your best roofer more than the foreman or supervisor he reports to, can you?

To which I would answer, why not? It may be that the field technician is more valuable and irreplaceable than the person he reports to. If that's the case, it makes more sense to pay him more than to suffer the alternative of weakening yourself in two positions - by taking the roofer away from that which he does best, and promoting him to a supervisory job that he may hate and is ill-equipped to handle.

Keep in mind that professional football coaches and baseball managers typically get paid a lot less than many of their performers. Yet, the good ones still manage to teach and motivate the players. Supervisory jobs have a lot of advantages - desk job, more prestige, steadier hours, less physically demanding - that many people would see as a reasonable trade-off with income.

When you do promote younger employees to supervisory positions, it's important to instruct them to be especially deferential to company veterans. Encourage them to ask their advice frequently (even if they ignore that advice). In some cases, it may be necessary to come up with a reporting structure in which the veteran reports directly to the owner.

More often than not, experienced employees will probably get the nod for promotions by virtue of merit, because experience does have value. The point is, age and experience should not be the sole deciding factor in who gets promoted.

One more point needs to be made about the value of experience. Take another look at the want ads. Most of them advertising for experienced employees ask for "three years" or "five years" of experience. In almost all cases, those are simply arbitrary numbers tossed out without any thought.

The difference between a raw novice and someone with one year of experience in a given trade is vast. Just for the sake of comparison, let's assign an arbitrary number, 100, to represent the difference in "experience points" between zero and one year of experience.

Does this mean the difference between someone with one year of experience and two years of experience would also equal 100? Rarely would that hold true. The so-called learning curve is such that for most jobs, the vast majority of basic knowledge needed to perform the work gets picked up in the first year. The meaningful difference between one and two years of experience might be worth only 25 points rather than 100. The gap keeps declining until you reach a point where there's no meaningful difference. Someone with 25 years of experience in a job has virtually no advantage over someone with 20 years of experience. By that time, talent and drive far overcome any differences in tenure.

So, do yourselves a favor and simply say, "experience a must" or something to that effect when looking for new employees. Otherwise, you risk turning away talented individuals who may have, say, two and a half years of experience while the ad calls for three.