If a list of magic solutions for solving today’s toughest hiring challenges existed, a skills-first approach would be at the top.
Finding, attracting, and retaining talent is more difficult now than it has ever been. The pandemic, the skills gap, a reduced workforce, and a weakened economy have altered the talent environment and created a perfect storm.
To weather that storm, companies are trying everything from increasing pay and benefits to offering flexible work options and sign-on bonuses. While tactics like that get people in the door and might even keep them around for a bit longer, creating a true pipeline of dedicated and skilled talent requires deeper work. It requires adopting a skills-first mentality across the entire organization, both from the top down and the bottom up.
My own journey to developing a passion for skills-based hiring started early. I was raised by a single mom who worked three jobs to make ends meet. As a latchkey kid, I jumped at the opportunity to work as soon as I turned 15. As a result, I came of age understanding there is dignity in all work and all people. The single mom who works three jobs and the early-career professional just starting out both have value in the workplace.
Now, more than ever, talent recognize their value and demand employers do too. According to research from Gartner, employees want acknowledgment, growth opportunities, and to feel valued, trusted, and empowered. Companies that ignore these desires will continue to struggle.
A historical push to require four-year degrees and meet long lists of qualifications, along with the use of non-inclusive rhetoric, has in part led us to where we are today. Talent who are available and open to work are choosing different learning pathways and refusing to engage with companies that don’t accept them as they are. The pandemic only accelerated this trend.
This dynamic has created a power shift. Companies can no longer afford to be exclusive because candidates are in charge. And what they want is respect for their skill and experience, no matter how they accumulated it. Rigid requirements and out-of-touch expectations only further limit your talent pipeline. And in a time where there are more job postings than talent to fill them, limitations only hinder your organization’s ability to grow and thrive.
Consider this transformation from a generational standpoint. Tomorrow’s workforce is not entering college at the rate we’ve previously seen. There will be even fewer college graduates to fill entry-level jobs in five years than we have now.
On top of that, Gen Z’s expectations are different. They are taking advantage of alternative paths to skills and demanding those skills be recognized. Organizations that don’t jump on board with a skills-first approach now will soon be light-years behind.
A diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) argument also begs to be made. When you require specific qualifications like a four-year degree, you omit more than 60% of the working population. And the other 40% are largely white Americans. You’re missing out on 70% of Latinx people, 73% of Indigenous people and 77% of Black people. By maintaining the status quo, organizations that want diverse candidates prevent them from even applying.
Furthermore, a commitment to hiring and upskilling early career talent leads to increased retention, engagement, and productivity. When you give early career talent time to ramp up and surround them with support and mentorship resources, you reduce turnover as well as cost to hire. From a business standpoint, this is a necessity. You’re making an investment in talent who will ultimately save your company precious time and resources.
While embracing a skills-first mentality requires commitment from an entire organization, tackle it in incremental steps.
First, take a critical look at your organizational chart. Map the areas where skills-based hiring is being incorporated, where opportunities to integrate it lie, and what barriers prevent the approach from taking hold.
Assess not only the front-line departments, but also finance, accounting, IT and marketing. While you may choose to start with entry-level positions, it’s important to view skills-based hiring holistically across all departments and experience levels. Determine if industry-recognized certifications may be completed or even offered internally in lieu of degrees and years of experience.
Next, review your organization’s job postings, job descriptions, benefits programs, and professional development opportunities. Determine whether change is needed or if unintended bias is present.
Remove degree requirements from job postings and focus instead on highlighting the skills you truly need. Ensure language is gender-neutral and doesn’t include characteristics or pronouns often associated with a particular gender.
Make sure your company’s benefits, criteria for special projects and tuition reimbursement policies are inclusive and serve a diverse employee population. Opportunities for advancement, upskilling and coaching should be available across the entire organization, not just for mid-level employees or leadership.
Assess your culture and values
Finally, your processes and policies should align with your organization’s culture and values. If your company values diversity, equity, and inclusion, and has a growth-minded culture, a skills-first mentality will support that.
Consider hosting focus groups that allow team members to weigh in on opportunities and challenges. Give them a chance to recommend ways to implement inclusive hiring practices and build a plan that incorporates that feedback.
There is no debating that some mid- to high-level jobs require a degree, years of experience, and specific training. But early career adults without degrees are marketable candidates who can grow to become highly skilled professionals if given the opportunity.
In the short-term, yes, it may take additional commitment for the organization to build this inclusive practice and mindset, and there is a cost to change. What you receive in return, however, is a workforce that is dedicated, invested, and uniquely trained for their roles. The alternative is waiting longer for someone who meets strict criteria, and that person may never come. And there are no data or studies showing that degreed and non-degreed talent perform differently on the job over any period of time.
When organizations remove barriers to hiring, open themselves up to non-traditional talent, and change their culture to remove degree requirements, they will find themselves breaking through the struggle to attract, hire, and retain quality talent. The storms may come, but your foundation will be strong.