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For more than a decade now the hottest spot in the knowledge worker job market is for people who combine strong technical skills with an underlying comprehension of how business works. At the high-end salaries in excess of $500,000 are achievable — though to get this money you’d need to be highly experienced and at the top of your profession.

But there’s an important twist. Employers aren’t just willing to pay for paper qualifications; they want to see real evidence of solid experience.

Evidence of a strong track record is even more important in a downturn than in the good times because employers simply can’t afford to take a punt.

Right now an ability to deliver is critical. No one is going to pay anyone a cent unless they can deliver exactly what’s expected. And this comes back to the basic principle of interview and selection; past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour.

The logic goes like this: If you’ve done the job before, you can do it again. If you’ve done it before, did it well learning new things along the way then you’ll do it better next time.

In other words, knowledge workers should look for jobs giving them the right experience, not an immediate high salary. The strategy that pays off in the long-term and a wise move in a downturn.

During previous recessions (the early 1990s, just after the dotcom crash) the knowledge workers who had the most trouble finding work were those who had previously enjoyed puffed up salaries. Often they were puffed up themselves and didn’t have a track record of delivering.

Remember that the right kind of experience will almost always beat paper qualifications in an employer’s view. Faced with the choice between spending $30k on a masters’ degree and taking a $30k pay hit to work on a prestigious project, the latter is the better investment.