Skills-based hiring enables employers to keep up with rapidly changing technology and business needs and encourages employees to remain at a company longer.

Ever-evolving technology and the shift to remote work are disrupting virtually all industries and roles. As this transformation occurs, recruiters and hiring managers will need to seek candidates who have the tech skills and emotional intelligence necessary to thrive in this new environment, says Michele Olivier, Principal Consultant of O&H Consulting in the Austin, Texas, area.

After 20 years of sourcing talent for Fortune 500 companies, including Big Four accounting firms and Big Tech, Olivier has found traditional hiring practices, such as relying on resumes and standard job interviews, to be lacking. “Migrate everything to skills-based hiring,” she advises.

Skills-based hiring practices prioritize a candidate’s aptitudes, abilities, and accomplishments over their “experience”—that is, whether their job or educational history directly relates to the role they are seeking. Recruiters and hiring managers who hire for skills don’t ignore a candidate’s experience; they simply recognize that a fancy degree and impressive titles don’t necessarily mean that a person will be a good fit for their company. And they are particularly careful not to exclude candidates who are coming from other industries or may not have the expected academic credentials. What matters is not a candidate’s pedigree or status, but whether they can demonstrate that they have the skills required to get the job done.

Olivier was in good company even before the pandemic. A 2018 Northeastern University survey of 750 HR leaders found that 23% said they formally de-emphasized degrees and prioritized skills, and 39% actively considered skills-based hiring. As whole industries have collapsed, leaving highly skilled talent jobless and unable to return to their former fields, it’s time for more companies to consider hiring for skills over experience.

Why Experience Matters Less

For years, recruiters and hiring managers assessed talent based on specific, relevant experience listed on resumes. HR administrators believed that if a candidate’s resume showed experience in a similar type of role or that they had studied a relevant topic in college, they would be well prepared for a new position.

However, this approach to hiring is problematic, Olivier says, because it fails to consider an applicant’s skills and how culture and fit play into employee success. “As a potential employer, knowing where you worked tells me nothing about your performance at my organization,” she says.

Evaluating candidates based on experience alone can also reinforce pedigree-based hiring by excluding highly skilled talent with traditionally less impressive education credentials.

Focusing too much on these criteria “inherently limits the candidate pool, and you potentially miss out on diverse hires,” says organizational psychologist and people-analytics expert Trav Walkowski, Partner and Chief Human Resources Officer of Employmetrics, an HR consulting company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Venesa Klein, Partner of executive search firm Calibre One, has helped companies, including Google, build their leadership teams. She asks hiring managers to imagine two potential candidates: a man who has a degree from Yale University and has worked at several well-known companies in their industry; and a woman who went to a non-Ivy League school and has worked at lesser known companies in a completely different industry.

At first glance, the male candidate may seem like a better bet. “But maybe the woman built a marketing team and grew revenue 10 times, thus achieving greater results [than the man at his larger companies],” Klein says. “Maybe she hasn’t scaled a startup to $100 million, but got it to $50 million with far fewer resources. Her skill set would be stronger, despite less directly relevant experience.”

The man’s background—with an elite college and multiple well-known, relevant employers on his resume—seems impressive to managers used to hiring for experience. But if the man has never grown revenue as much as the woman has, proportional to the resources at his disposal at these bigger organizations, he might not be as skilled as the woman. Even if she has only worked at small companies in another industry, she may be more able to apply her skills to a role in an industry in which she has not previously worked. She just might need a mentor within the new company to help her figure out how best to succeed in the unfamiliar environment.

Skills Recruiters Should Seek

Every employee needs some of the same skills, regardless of industry or role. For instance, people must be able to work autonomously—perhaps even remotely—while still being deft collaborators, says David Nour, CEO of Nour Group and author of Curve Benders: How Strategic Relationships Can Power Your Non-linear Growth in the Future of Work. Every business needs fresh thinking and new approaches to innovate, Nour adds, and the best candidates show curiosity, enthusiasm, and intelligence—essential skills that are hard to teach.

“They immerse themselves in the topic, they digitally stalk others who have written or are talking about it, and they debate, poke, prod, and challenge assumptions and status quo, always trying to prove themselves wrong,” says Nour, who advises business leaders. “Once they have a hypothesis, they tell stories that make their case in a compelling manner. You get their confidence and comfort in defending their position, not just regurgitating it.”

Four out of five CEOs told PwC’s Talent Trends 2019 report, part of their 22nd Annual Global CEO Survey, that they were disappointed by their employees’ lack of these essential skills and saw it as a threat to their organization’s growth. Fifty-five percent of CEOs extremely concerned about the availability of key competencies said they are not able to innovate effectively.

Focusing on universally helpful skills is innovative thinking because technology and automation are moving so quickly that employees constantly have to upskill anyway, says Peter Matthies, Founder of the Conscious Business Institute (CBI), a Santa Barbara, California-based organization dedicated to changing the way business is conducted.

CBI uses five performance identities (individual, team, organization, business, and conscious leader) to assess, improve, and manage leadership and culture for their client organizations of up to 150,000 employees.

“Especially in today’s challenging times, human skills are the most important factor to pay attention to,” Matthies says. “Are the candidates able to deal with constant change? Are they emotionally resilient, or do they fly off the handle? Are the candidates able to stick to a healthy set of values when things are challenging, or do they take shortcuts?”

IBM, for instance, looks at a number of skills, including soft traits, such as intellectual curiosity and problem-solving abilities, in addition to aptitude, to better understand analytics and derive insights from data, says Victoria Pelletier, Vice President of Talent and Transformation at IBM North America.

Re-evaluating Education

While certain soft skills are more important than ever, job candidates will also need hard skills to succeed in certain roles. “Employers still think that a degree embodies skill and signifies that you are trainable,” says Nicole Smith, a research professor and Chief Economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW). “It’s an indication of knowledge,” she says.

In recent years, HR experts have seen more demand for education, says Smith. Sixty-five percent of all jobs require education beyond a high school diploma, according to CEW. However, Smith notes that education doesn’t just mean bachelor’s degrees—it can also include certifications, licenses, associate degrees, and postsecondary vocational certificates.

Advanced degrees may not be necessary, Walkowski points out. “Anyone can learn a programming language. But you can’t train someone to have good insight or translate things to serve a general audience.”

Tech companies are already thinking beyond the four-year university. A college degree isn’t a prerequisite for employment at Tesla, which makes electric cars, solar panels, and other green-energy products. A former Tesla recruiter told Business Insider that they screened people for technical abilities and career trajectory.

“Skills, whether learned from a Harvard degree, an online course, or an apprenticeship, are what get the job done,” LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky wrote in a blog post titled, “Hiring for the Future, Not the Past.” His company is taking a multi-pronged approach to transitioning to skills-based hiring.

The new LinkedIn Skills Graph will help create “a common skills language” to “leverage skills information to improve workforce planning, hiring, and development programs.” Candidates can gain skills from LinkedIn Learning courses and complete assessments to show their mastery. Member profiles will emphasize skills over experience. LinkedIn is also debuting Skills Path, which allows job candidates who shine in specified skills assessments to receive priority evaluations at various companies.

Google recently released professional certificate courses on Coursera in IT support, data analytics, UX design, and project management designed to provide affordable access to training that can lead to high-paying, in-demand jobs. Google reports that 82% of US residents who earned an IT Support Professional Certificate got a new job or promotion, enhanced their skills, or received a raise. Graduates of the program will provide Google and its 130 partner employers, including Verizon, Intel, and Bank of America, with a pipeline of candidates who have the skills to address their evolving needs.

Finding and Attracting Highly Skilled Talent

Employers are widening the net to include other less obvious pipelines for talent. Potential employees come to Tesla by reaching out to recruiters on LinkedIn or via their network. Google hosts “hackathons,” where programmers collaborate on a short-term project. These events, which last anywhere from 24 hours to a full weekend, are a form of networking for participants, Olivier says. The winners get job offers and opportunities such as project work, she adds. Google can also tap its online program certificate holders to fill openings.

Walkowski points to the storied origins of the Homebrew Computer Club, a group of computer enthusiasts who met in Menlo Park, California, from 1975 to 1986. This club is credited with helping Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak get their start. Walkowski says other professional organizations, hobby-centered clubs, and social media groups could connect recruiters to skilled talent.

Walkowski and other experts say revamping the hiring process starts with job descriptions. Employers should list the metrics they will use to determine fit for the role, and include the skills candidates need to achieve key performance indicators, says Olivier. To round out the job description, she suggests sharing the hiring criteria, pay range, time off and work schedule details, and other perks the company offers.

As for those online skills assessments, Eric Jones, CEO of CoutureCandy, says his company uses Codility, a software platform to assess coding skills.

Michael Ruiz, President and CEO of Global Talent Solutions in Laguna Hills, California, which has helped the franchise industry recruit employees since 2006, agrees that today’s job postings don’t always yield the best candidates.

“People don’t understand the difference between a job description and a job ad,” he says. Job descriptions are internal documents, whereas job ads are what employers post to attract talent, and they should emphasize employers’ offerings, such as additional training. That approach is more likely to appeal to millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and Generation Z workers (born between the mid-1990s and early 2010s), who are poised to become the majority of the workforce.

Changing the Application Process

Nour says employers use artificial intelligence to whittle down the list of potential hires because it works quickly, scanning 10,000 resumes in as little as eight seconds. Because the technology is searching only for specific keywords, however, it can miss worthwhile candidates a human recruiter might notice. “I believe in automation,” he says, “but don’t let it replace prudent judgment.”

Instead of relying solely on traditional resumes, Nour encourages hiring managers and recruiters to ask candidates to create introductory videos highlighting their skills. A video can give recruiters more insight into a candidate’s personality, qualifications, and their comfort level with technology.

Pelletier values LinkedIn profiles. “Your LinkedIn profile tells more than a resume,” she says. “It tells me about someone’s brand.”

LinkedIn profiles include hard and soft skills and previous employers and education. However, they can also include credentials and certificates, information on potential employees’ digital footprints, and references and recommendations. Users can feature articles and videos they’ve created and other media that features them.

Reconstructing the Job Interview

To assess candidates’ hard and soft skills, Walkowski suggests hiring managers and recruiters ask behavioral, hypothetical, and even philosophical questions of candidates. For example, if he were hiring an HR business partner, Walkowski might ask the following:

  • Behavioral: Tell me about a time when communication missed the mark. How did you use your skills to remedy the situation?

  • Hypothetical: Give an example of a disconnect between a strategy HR might roll out and a stakeholder’s needs. How would you close the gap?

  • Philosophical: What is your communication philosophy? What are your guiding principles for good communication?

Walkowski recommends hiring managers ask candidates about their passions and observe their behavior and communication skills. Ruiz suggests asking open-ended questions, allowing potential hires to demonstrate their skills.

Olivier recommends creating assessment centers modeled on what they have in Europe: Candidates are evaluated on how they collaborate with others on an assignment or how well they perform a tech-related task.

Smith says certification is another tool to verify proficiency in areas such as Salesforce skills, coding languages, and project management. Klein says Calibre One uses Criteria for in-house personality assessments, and some of her clients use Hogan.

As CEO of Seattle-based TeamBuilding, Michael Alexis leads organizations’ virtual team-building events and vets prospects using skills-based assessments and test projects. His team has found that typing speed is a predictor of success in customer support and marketing roles, so candidates for those jobs take a one-minute typing test as part of their application. The company then assigns top applicants a small paid project. For a content marketing role, candidates might write an article for the TeamBuilding blog so the team can assess the applicants’ writing and communication skills and their ability to meet deadlines.

Why Future Success Depends on Skills-based Hires

By 2025, 44% of the skills “employees will need to perform their roles effectively will change,” according to the World Economic Forum's The Future of Jobs Report 2020. The same report revealed that 94% of business leaders “expect employees to pick up new skills on the job.” In 2018, that number was only 65%. The IBM Institute for Business Value reports that technical skills have a “half-life” of about 2.5 years. Experience-based candidates who don’t have the interest or aptitude to be upskilled for a company’s future needs won’t help move business forward.

“Upskilling is critical during the years to come,” Matthies says. “We might need to change professions every few years, with completely new skill levels. It will be critical to hire people with a learner mindset and to provide them with platforms where they can continuously grow.”

In addition to staying competitive in the years to come, these upskilled employees may be more likely to stay. A Work Institute survey of 250,000 employees in the 2019 Retention Report: Trends, Reasons, and a Call to Action found that nearly a quarter of workers cited “career development” as the reason they left a job. Continual training can address workers’ concerns about stagnation, Matthies says—and boost retention.

Walkowski agrees. “Millennials and Gen Zers feel like, if the organization isn’t investing in me, why should I invest in it?” he says.

Forward-thinking companies are already emphasizing training. Amazon launched Upskilling 2025, investing $700 million in skills training for 100,000 US-based employees in in-demand areas such as cloud computing. According to Accenture data in Amazon Upskilling 2025 Report, half of the 66% of workers who say they feel broadly supported by their employer also say their company provides additional training or skilling opportunities.

IBM, Pelletier reports, works with Salesforce, Adobe, and others to provide training. The company also uses THINK40, a learning program that provides at least 40 hours of professional development annually. Managers track progress and consider performance to determine and reevaluate compensation, Pelletier says.

Ultimately, skills-based hiring improves retention and allows companies to measure job candidates’ practical, actionable knowledge—and assess how trainable they are for future skills that must be learned. Hiring for skills also enables employers to enlarge the talent pool and cultivate a more diverse workforce.

“Skills-based hiring is one of the most effective ways to overcome the limitations of experience-focused hiring,” says TeamBuilding’s Alexis. “Even if people haven’t worked in the specific area, if they have skills like writing, legal research, coding, or graphics, then they will be able to work in similar areas.”