The uncomfortable truth about skills-based hiring

May 23, 2024 | Home Featured, Opinion, Selection & assessment

Skills-based hiring can be challenging. Robert Newry, CEO and Co-Founder of Arctic Shores, explains what can go wrong, what ‘good’ looks like, and shares a new playbook with cutting-edge advice.

Glance at any 2024 trends report, analyst podcast, or vendor webinar and you’re bound to hear the buzz about skills-based hiring.

Yet hiring for skills rather than experience has been in play for nearly 30 years — and it wasn’t so long ago that hiring for ‘competencies’ was the big new thing. So, what’s different and is this more than the emperor’s new clothes?

While the desire to move away from polish over potential is a worthy driver to skills-based hiring, and a valuable way to address the skills crisis, the first uncomfortable truth about skills-based hiring is that there is no universal agreement on what a ‘skill’ is or how to measure one.

Some people say a skill is something that is learned, others say it’s something you have reached a level of competency in, while others extend it out to something you are innately good at. A lack of clarity on the issue undermines the basis of what we are trying to select for with skills-based hiring.

If we go back to basics, the Oxford Dictionary defines a skill as ‘a capability of accomplishing something with precision and certainty; practical knowledge in combination with ability’.

I like the second half of this — practical knowledge, or experience, combined with capability, or competence.

If we can agree on this definition, then it narrows down what is and what isn’t a skill – and casts a light on whether something like ‘curiosity’ can be really categorised as a skill.

The second uncomfortable truth is how to measure or certify a skill if it’s not a qualification?

In the rush to build the skills-led organisation, employees have been asked to self-certify skills and without a clear definition, the breadth of skills has ballooned, as everyone starts to claim a skill in something they have simply done or experienced, without any reference to capability.

The challenge for TA teams is being asked to go to market and hire for skills, based on a self-certified internal list that has been curated by an HR tech vendor, with little to no foundation in occupational psychology (the guardians of good practice on definitions of competencies, skills, and traits and how they relate to job performance).

As Josh Bersin recently noted: “We’re now reaching a point where we have dozens of examples of companies that have done this [skills-based hiring] in a pragmatic way. And hundreds of examples of companies that haven’t done it in a pragmatic way who are going to be frustrated.”

No wonder so many TA leaders and teams are questioning whether skills-based hiring is all that it’s promoted to be. Those who have adopted successfully, like Andrea Marston at VMWare, did so by taking a more practical approach.

What an effective skills-based hiring process actually looks like

Based on advice from the TA Disruptors community, and a decade of experience working with 300+ organisations globally, we have developed a more pragmatic and practical approach to skills-based hiring which is underpinned by two core principles:

1. We must evaluate candidates based on their core capabilities and ability to acquire new skills, something we call ‘skill-enablers’

In order to guarantee that a candidate will be able to survive and thrive as digitisation continues to evolve at a rapid pace, we also need to understand a person’s core strengths and capabilities –– like their natural level of resilience or adaptability –– and critically, their ability to acquire new skills in the future.

Only if we understand whether a person has what it takes to continue to learn, adapt, and grow can we understand whether they’ll be able to help our organisation navigate the ever-changing world of work.

2. We must give candidates a platform to demonstrate their capabilities, not just tell us they have them.

The pitfalls of selecting candidates based on their degree or qualifications alone are well established. But we also have to bear in mind the differences each person’s make-up has on the way they ‘self-report’ their strengths too. For example, women are more likely to underestimate their capabilities vs men in a self-report scenario.

To avoid mis-hires and maintain the efficacy of our process, TA disruptors need to ensure that every step of the hiring process –– from sifting to interview evaluation –– allows candidates to showcase their abilities, not just talk about them.

With all the above in mind, we have landed on a simple and more pragmatic definition of skills-based hiring:

An effective skills-based hiring process must:
1. Evaluate a candidate based on their current soft-skills, hard-skills, and –– critically –– their ability to acquire future skills –– rather than their past experience

2. Give candidates an opportunity to show they have the potential to succeed in a role, rather than simply tell you about it

At this point, you may be wondering, how do I take this definition and turn it into something I can implement?

The pragmatist’s playbook for skills-based hiring: helping TA leaders navigate a new era of recruitment

We’ve pooled a decade of our own expertise in steering companies away from experience-oriented hiring towards potential-focused recruitment. With insights from trailblazing TA leaders in our field, we’ve created the most practical playbook on skills-based hiring to date.

This playbook is designed to give you research-backed, practical, validated advice curated from the likes of Siemens, Molson Coors, and the Department of Education. It’s here to help you achieve three goals:

1. Understand the critical steps required to adopt skills-based hiring –– what most people miss out, how to be successful without having to map your process exactly to a complex skills taxonomy, and how to ensure you’re able to capture an authentic picture of a candidate’s true capabilities and skills

2. Dive into how to practically move away from experience-centric hiring towards a more straight-forward version of skills-based hiring –– the steps required to update your entire hiring process in a way that uncovers candidates’ true potential: from redesigning job specs to upgrading your interview process

3. Get actionable tips on how to avoid common pitfalls and roadblocks along the way –– tips on how to align everyone from your CPO to your CFO in what good looks like, how to engage your hiring managers, and how to move from a pilot to an organisational wide roll-out

This playbook is not your typical skills-based hiring guide. Instead of just telling you to ‘engage hiring managers’, we’ll show you step-by-step how to implement new processes – and even provide you with templates – to help you actually get things done.

You may also be interested in…

Expedia Group’s Early Careers Playbook for skills-based hiring at scale

4 critical skills graduates need to thrive in a hybrid work environment

Meeting the green skills gap in early careers at Veolia



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