One way to improve and diversify talent pipelines: Hire for what someone can do, versus what they have already done. So-called skills-based hiring has been hailed as the future of staff development.

But how can employers gauge and hire for skills when the skills needed to stay relevant and competitive just keep changing? Think of the poor souls spending entire shifts posting Facebook content for users who long ago moved onto Tik Tok, or the legal assistant with brief-writing skills now replaced by ChatGPT. What steps could a company take, both in the process of recruiting and retaining and retraining talent, to ensure teams have the necessary skills to pivot more quickly and in tandem with rapidly evolving strategy?

There’s an urgent need to figure this out quickly. In an October survey of 3,000 US workers from Amazon and Workplace Intelligence, three-quarters of millennial and Gen Z workers said they are likely to quit over a lack of skills-development opportunities. Some 70% say they feel unprepared for the future of work. More than half fear their skills have gone stale in the pandemic.

“Our current approach to talent isn’t going to be enough for the future. We cannot hire enough people with the right skills to meet the needs of new roles, business transformations, and strategies,” says Annee Bayeux, chief learning strategist at education-technology company Degreed. “It is only through upskilling and reskilling that you can prepare your organization for the future.” She described the alternative as “a vicious cycle of hiring new people and laying off others with not-needed skills,” with further hits to productivity and morale.

But the road to a more skilled workforce requires employers rethinking all aspects of both hiring and the employee experience that follows.

The case for tests

As the labor market shifts from the tightness of the last few years (fewer candidates, more jobs), one strategy for employers is to screen applicants with tests. These assessments can go beyond hard skills to measure traits such as whether the applicant is the right culture fit, or the scope of their communication skills, says Wouter Durville, CEO of TestGorilla, a screening company that works with thousands of global employers. For my example of the has-been social media manager, he offers: “A social media manager used to be on Snap and now they have to do Tik Tok. That should be fine. Their culture test needs to show they are open to change.”

Bayeux notes that asking for more context and application of skills is key: “Coding and writing are good examples of where we can gather reliable evidence/samples,” she says. “The same applies to credentials like certificates and degrees. It all depends on the context.”

Examples of other tests: personality tests, emotional-intelligence tests, or tests to evaluate a growth mindset. Retail applicants might be asked to take an “honesty” test.

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The case against tests

Tests don’t paint a complete portrait of a candidate, and most experts caution they should be just one metric to determine skill set. “When the talent pool is small, and the demand is high, I think administering tests is a great way to lose top talent,” says David Bach, VP of talent acquisition at DroneUp. “The best programmers and developers at the tech giants are in such high demand that they could go to work just about anywhere. If you’ve managed to convince them to explore joining your company, I don’t think that they will sit through a 90-minute coding assessment for you and the other companies they are considering.”

On DroneUp’s site and its marketing materials, the company takes care to position itself as one that invests in its workers and teams, saying: “We are not just recruiting, we are creating talent.”

The best way to interview for skills

What managers look for in interviews needs to change in order to shift to skill-based hiring. Often, people will hire for charisma or “fit”—an approach that’s also more easily influenced by bias—versus demonstrated grasp and application of skills. Experts recommend making interviews more structured and asking for plenty of examples of how skills are being deployed. That focuses more on hiring employees with an eye toward their career trajectory and adaptability—and allows more nebulous characteristics to fit into a skills framework.

Behavior-based interviewing, for example, begins with a phrase like “Tell me about a time when…” to “get to know the person behind the resume,” says Randal Vegter, vice president of talent enablement and culture at Skillsoft, which produces learning-management software and content. “It’s important to not just focus on asking the question, checking off your interview book, and moving on to the next one. The real value is in what you do to dig deeper into the person’s thinking. Ask what made challenging parts challenging, what steps they took to solve the problem, and what they were thinking at the time.”

Remember the skill you most value is how an individual thinks about a problem; and so questions like “How do you solve (insert problem)?” are secondary, says Vegter. “So much of success is based on navigating real-world challenges, and behavior-based questions get at that, where scenario questions often don’t. However, scenario-based questions are a chance for you to give the candidate similar situations to the ones you face, providing insight into their thinking.”

Reskill early and often

Another significant change for workplaces is that reskilling is not a singular event or moment, but an entire shift in culture. Right now, training is often conducted as a separate activity from someone’s day job. Given advancements in technology (and the more recent frenzy over artificial intelligence, even though it’s been a workplace feature for literal decades), people might be trained with a reminder that change is definitely coming.

For example, at DroneUp, “We need our field employees to be able to operate one drone from point A to B and back. In the future, advances in autonomous technology will ideally get to the point where one person is coordinating simultaneous flights and monitoring their flight paths and performance, intervening manually when necessary,” says Bach. This is known and built into the company’s workforce development. “If your end users or operators are part of the development and deployment life cycle, reskilling becomes iterative, rather than trying to take giant leaps all at once.”

Rethink the layoffs

Who’s laying workers off? Tech.

Who’s hiring? Tech.

Indeed, data show 41% of all job cuts in January were in tech. But tech skills are also among those most in demand.

Companies play a role in rightsizing this equation. “Sometimes the first to go are the ones who should be protected at all costs,” says Bayeux, both because of their skills and how their departures affect those left behind. “Investing in your people is exactly how to remain recession-resilient.”

I think back to what a journalism professor once told me he couldn’t teach: empathy and curiosity. I’ve clung to that as a hiring philosophy for decades now. I never saw the traits as such, but now realize how much interoffice relations and problem-solving rely upon these, yes, skills. And employers need to apply healthy doses of empathy and curiosity to their own workforces, even as they search for others who share these vital skills.

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