Three-minute explainer on… skills-first hiring

Imposing arbitrary selection criteria when hiring for a job is reductive, short-sighted and could end up discounting some potentially excellent candidates 

Three-minute explainer

Qualifications are not guarantees of ability. Skills and experience exist on a spectrum. Indeed, what one person masters in a year may take someone else a decade.

A willingness to judge people on a case-by-case basis, rather than putting too much stock into what’s put “on paper”, can go a long way when hiring. Talent, after all, comes in all shapes and sizes and from different backgrounds and age groups. 

What is skills-first hiring?

Skills-first hiring is an approach to recruitment which focuses on whether a candidate has the right competencies to fulfil a particular role rather than simply ticking boxes such as having a particular university degree

In practice, skills-first hiring may involve job advertisements that specify certain expertise and ask candidates to give examples of when and how they have demonstrated it, rather than filtering them by where or whether or not they have studied.

It is more likely to involve a practical element, so a candidate’s claims can be put to the test before an offer of employment is made. A company recruiting for a software engineer, for example, may choose to give candidates a test of their competency in coding or programming. A newspaper or magazine hiring a journalist may test a candidate’s writing or proofreading skills.

Could skills-first hiring help your business?

Taking a skills-first approach to hiring may require more strategic planning than a more traditional approach, but it can yield considerable benefits. It requires a company’s chief people officer (or similar) to work closely with hiring managers to work out what knowledge gaps exist in different teams. These gaps can then be tactically filled by candidates with demonstrated experience, rather than simply attractive CVs.

Hiring in this way can help organisations avoid the pitfalls of confirmation bias. Hiring someone because they have a particular degree from a particular university can lead to a lack of diversity in thought, stymieing innovation and damaging company culture.

Skills-first hiring will usually take a bit more time and, to an extent, a leap of faith. But companies that are willing to move past the status quo may end up with a great hire from somewhere that they are not usually exposed to. A firm which arbitrarily discounts candidates with fewer than five years’ experience risks missing out on the brilliant candidate who only has two.

The experience paradox – you have to have experience to get experience – is a frustrating feature of the job market. With skills-first hiring this can be replaced with the ability index: you can have the job if you can do the job.