If you’re not getting the “soft skills” you need when hiring college grads, it could be your approach to interviewing needs to change.
We asked human resource and hiring experts to talk about the perceived lack of “soft skills” in college graduates. They didn’t point to where college curriculums or internships are letting future employers down – they pointed to the recruiting and interviewing process. That’s where employers need to get with the times, they said.
What are we missing?
“Typically when people in HR or talent development are talking about soft skills they mean critical thinking, decision making, communication skills, empathy and awareness,” Renetta McCann, Chief Inclusion Experience Officer at Publicis Groupe, said.
McCann contends that every business failure – whether it’s the inability to meet deadlines, deficiencies in outcomes, changes in management or merger/acquisition failures – can be attributed to a lack of these “soft” skills during the process.
“In business, ‘hard’ skills are more important than ‘soft,’ but damage is done when those intangibles, or ‘soft’ skills, aren’t there,” McCann said.
So why are employers repeatedly finding they’ve screened and hired someone who doesn’t have what the company needs?
Jeffrey Moss, CEO of Parker Dewey, works with recent graduates and employers. In industries like tech, finance and business, Moss finds employers often screen to find the top GPAs coming from the best schools in that field of study.
Using artificial intelligence to screen resumes before HR starts to reach out to candidates, for example, only makes the filter tighter. This is how employers “miss students without the right GPA or who didn’t use a consultant to keyword their resume,” Moss said. “Automated systems made it so easy to apply for each and every job through AI, keyword search and filtering. There are so many grads with tons of soft skill qualities, but they don’t have the right academic pedigree.”
From these filters, the candidates chosen to start the interview process are outstanding academically in their chosen field, and they know how to present themselves.
“Schools make students incredibly interview-ready,” Moss said.
Employers feel satisfied they’ve found the best of the bunch, and soon new grads come to work.
Contentment turns to frustration as managers find the new hire lacking in problem-solving or intellectual curiosity. Maybe they don’t know how to speak up effectively if they find a problem no one else has spotted, or they don’t have the conflict resolution skills needed when deadlines are tight and teams are stressed.
So how do you find a better fit?
Know what you’re looking for
“Employers need to be more thoughtful in exactly what they’re looking for,” Rachel Albert, an independent HR consultant who most recently was an HR leader at GE Capital, said. “They need to be more realistic, more thoughtful in exactly what they need. If they did that, the (skills) gap wouldn’t exist.”
For example, if a manager in finance is looking for an analyst, are they exclusively looking for tech skills? Or do they need an employee with qualities like communication and problem solving who can play a role on a team and learn the technical piece on the job?
In the first situation, filtering resumes to GPA and alma mater would be enough. In the second, the initial job posting could be open to more than just finance majors, drawing in general business degrees, students with studies in communication, etc.
“Which is better?” Moss asked. “Someone who knows Python or accounting, or someone who is able to learn new things? There is so much dynamic change in every area of business – adaptation is so necessary.”
Albert and Moss are both adamant that the way to find a better fit for an open position is to include the hiring manager much earlier in the process. Too often the manager who leads the team and knows the dynamics doesn’t meet a candidate until resume screening, first interviews and sometimes second interviews are over.
These experts aren’t suggesting the hiring manager actually reads every resume submitted, but they need to outline for HR what the new hire should bring to the table to be considered a good fit.
“Get the hiring manager and the team more involved in the interview process,” Albert said. “Grads aren’t working for HR. Don’t just wait for the top one or two candidates to be sent to you after hiring fair screenings – send someone from the team to the hiring fair!”
Give applicants information they need
If you’re not bringing in the level of candidates that fit your organization, give more information about the job and the culture of the company to potential candidates.
Most businesses don’t give enough dimension to their job posting, McCann said. For example, name the soft skills needed to do the job, like communication or decision-making.
When scheduling interviews, help candidates prepare.
“(Tell them to) come prepared to talk about a meaningful time you were in conflict and how you handled it,” McCann suggested, “or answer this essay question.”
Give candidates examples of what’s important to your company culture before they get to the interview. “If you’re a ‘Radical Candor’ fan, send them the book. Employers should be priming candidates of our expectations, of how we behave,” McCann said.
Skills that are important in the company environment should be clear to the candidate before the interview. “Send them examples of well-written emails or well-written memos. Show them what kind of guidelines we follow. We should be elevating (our business culture’s) importance in the candidate screening process.”
Build a better interview
Assessing soft skills and overall fit requires some adjustment to interview at the candidate’s experience level.
Albert recommends a behavioral-based interview approach to help match the candidate to the open position.
Since recent college graduates don’t have years of career experiences to reflect upon, have them draw on their past experiences and abilities.
“A lot of students are not ready to articulate how their experiences have helped them,” she said. But they do have life experience – just at a different level.
“Ask them to think of a mistake they’ve made in the past, and tell me, how did you correct it? Or, ‘I see you were captain of the volleyball team. Can you tell me a time when you had to motivate someone on your team? How did you do it?’
“Unless a graduate took super-specific instruction at a trade school, they need to articulate to an employer how their life experience translates into their work readiness. Whether they were a nanny or a volleyball captain, they’ve used conflict negotiation. They’ve shown resilience.”
Give them work
Employers looking to do a better job of fitting candidates to job openings should “find ways to let them do the work,” Moss said.
His former company used a micro-internship model to bring the best people to the company. The assignment is rookie level – something a new-hire would get on the job, he said. They would be given three weeks to complete what he called “a bite-size project that takes 20, 25 hours to get done.”
The process can dovetail nicely with candidates in their final semester who still have academic obligation, yet the benefit for the employer is the team gets the value of the work. And the hiring manager, as supervisor, gets to see the candidate’s work ethic, attention to detail and problem-solving skills.
“It’s a low-risk way to see a student shine that might not make the cut when it comes to school or GPA,” Moss aid. “Take advantage of the gig economy. Campus recruiters can use this to align to the existing hiring process and see them in the work.”
Albert is also a fan of giving leading candidates a chance to show their work.
“A micro-internship is like dating before marriage,” she said. The more time the candidate and the hiring manager spend together, the more ideal the situation. “The job is all about the fit.”