Expanding talent pools means rethinking traditional skills requirements

For years, a disconnect between higher education and the workforce has been growing. Employers have long complained that they cannot find the talent they need among recent college graduates, citing a dearth of workers who have the kinds of skills needed for today’s workplace demands. COVID-19 has exacerbated this situation further, as college enrollment rates continue to fall dramatically during the pandemic.

Even though companies struggle to match open roles with qualified and diverse talent however, little has changed in how companies identify candidates. They rely on colleges and universities to craft talent pipelines for them, but lament about what those pipelines produce. 

That’s why it’s crucial for these companies to fundamentally adjust how they approach hiring talent. Instead of tip-toeing around the skills gap problem, they need to overhaul their hiring strategy with a new method — one that embraces skills and resourceful career pathing.


Why focusing on just credentials won’t cut it

To cultivate dynamic and diverse talent, employers can no longer afford to focus on credentials alone when they make hiring decisions. While college degrees can indicate that a candidate has gained certain skills and knowledge, they don’t paint a full picture of one’s talent and potential. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York found just over a quarter of college graduates work in careers related to their majors. And a Third Way report states that at least half of students enrolling in four-year institutions do not graduate within six years. 

That number represents millions of intelligent, experienced — and often quite motivated — potential employees. By and large, this cohort isn’t dropping out of school because they gave up or failed too many courses. Oftentimes, life simply got in the way. Money, time pressures, and family situations can all lead to a hard-working degree seeker putting their education on hold. 

According to a study by The Education Trust, these students are also disproportionately Black and Latinx, meaning degree requirements immediately exclude candidates of color from the hiring pool. As the pandemic continues to disproportionately impact students of color and their families, this gap will only widen in the months and years to come. Meanwhile, [email protected] placed the number of employees in the skilled-but-overlooked group at 71 million. 


Some companies are already paving the way

Employers have long talked about dropping traditional degrees as a signal for candidate viability. Some organizations, like IBM, Google, and Apple, have already made the shift, even though they have plenty of candidates and low job posting durations. Other companies should follow suit if they want to create internal talent mobility and foster a more diverse workforce. This is especially true as higher education struggles to enroll and graduate new and underrepresented students and the fight for talent escalates. 

By emphasizing skills over degrees, these companies use open skills frameworks to provide a common understanding of an employee’s capability. To clarify what exactly companies mean by “skills,” organizations like the Open Skills Network have standardized the descriptions used for skills to increase the likelihood of a shared definition across the ecosystem. 

In addition, the skills analytics firm Emsi has revolutionized employer access to skills data. While this data isn’t the most easily structured, searched, and algorithmically perfect tool we hoped it would become by now, it’s on its way. This gives a clearer view to talent acquisition leaders about the types of profiles and backgrounds they need to hire from, where the supply is plentiful, and what kind of skill development is required in the future. 

IBM’s New Collar program, for example, uses an online assessment tool to baseline the skills that a potential employee may have and where there may be gaps for jobs in high demand. It then matches workers with certification programs to make sure they’re ready for those opportunities.  


New pathways in unforseen places

To see how all this can be realized, let’s call out a specific example: computer user support specialists. According to Emsi, this job is expected to grow 11% between now and 2026. The role of a customer support specialist has significant skills that overlap with a computer user support specialist. The technical skills that are needed to navigate specific screens within an application or system for the latter role may seem insurmountable, but many customer support specialists have already mastered other, more difficult shared skills. For example, handling agitated customers who are frustrated with technology, gathering important context on technical challenges, walking customers through ways to resolve challenges, and logging tickets for other teams to troubleshoot. 

In this situation, a partnership between talent acquisition and talent development allows for the identification of a new candidate persona and as a result, a new talent pool. Combine this new talent pool with a short talent development program focused on specific technology challenges, and a plentiful talent pool emerges from the company’s call center.

If talent development focused on narrow skill gaps where large demand exists, it could create direct pathways for internal talent, rather than a “perfect” external candidate. But this aspiration to change hiring practices cannot exist in a vacuum, and it’s unrealistic for hiring managers to recognize existing roles and skill overlap across business units and divisions. It will require a new level of integration between talent acquisition and talent development. As skill profiles are identified for roles that are in the greatest demand, organizations should develop programs that help close the deltas between talent that are rich in supply and roles that are rich in demand. In the end, this will result in a candidate persona where upskill planning is a feature, not a bug.

Note: This is an excerpt from “Don’t Hire Skills—Hire to Skill,” published on April 30, 2021 in TD Magazine. Read the full article here

Written by Matthew Daniel
Principal, Employer Solutions

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