Hiring for Skills VS. Experience: A Contemporary Approach

Hiring for Skills VS. Experience: A Contemporary Approach

This week, our guest writer Sara Hanks tackles some of the ways in which we shortchange candidates and ourselves in the hiring process with, “Hiring for Skills VS. Experience: A Contemporary Approach.”

On September 26, 2023, it happened; I was asked a question while on stage for a panel discussion that I was not prepared to answer. I was invited to participate in a panel discussion on productivity in the workplace through digital transformation, only 2 weeks before the event. When approached, I was provided a brief description of the panel and thought to myself, “I’m very qualified to talk about this topic. I have a completed digital transformation of the quality processes, from the shop floor to the top floor and out into the supply chain.” What I didn’t understand until an hour before was that the panel was specifically geared towards the human resource experience, a topic in which I didn’t have much exposure to. After confidently introducing myself, I was left to answer the question, “What trends am I seeing in the area of skills?”

Cue awkward pause and racing mind to even recall the question, let alone respond.

After a few seconds, I decided that I had something to say about the subject. The biggest recognizable trend that I’m seeing around skills is that there is a lack of emphasis on them, and companies are stuck hiring for experience vs. skills. Unfortunately, I had been passed up for promotion based on lack of experience in the role, even though their main objective was to enable the organization with technology and data. It was a tough pill to swallow, and I’m still convinced that I’m the best fit. Lately, I’ve had several conversations with job seekers that find themselves in the same position.

For highly skilled professions such as a brain surgeon, experience matters. I would prefer to be patient one thousand vs. the first patient after completing education. For other industries, many roles could be filled by looking at the skills required for a job and finding a person with those skills. 

In an article published by the Harvard Business Review1 there has been a shift in companies requiring a college degree to perform a job. Between 2017 and 2019, employers reduced degree requirements by 46% for two-year degrees or certifications and 31% for high-skill positions. However, 37% of companies still require degrees and certifications, even with the shortages of qualified candidates. However, limitations exist beyond the qualification of a degree or no degree. You can have the proper degree, but have experience in a different industry, or the work history is less aligned with the work history sought by employers. My recent conversations show a problem with the latter.

The lack of adoption of skills-based hiring concerns me for two reasons:

  1. Hiring Bias – Let’s say that a company needs to find a replacement for Joe. He’s a middle-manager in a service department. Joe has 15 years of experience, has several technical certifications, and turned wrenches while obtaining his certifications. When we talk about “finding a replacement for Joe,” our natural tendency is to replace him with the same experience vs. finding a candidate with the skills needed to perform the job well, creating a hiring bias. I have seen this repeatedly – the look-alike gets hired and the opportunity to have diversity is lost.
  2. Significant Talent Gap – As AI and technology becomes more prevalent in business, the candidate pool of experienced people goes down significantly. Again, by understanding what skills are necessary to fill new positions such as an automation engineer, you can find a candidate that can cross train into that role. Over the years, several people who worked for me learned skills required in AI or software. They smoothly transitioned into roles in those spaces with a distinct advantage: they understood the business they were serving and produced solutions faster than experienced software developers and data scientists. Unfortunately, if they had not already established the network and credibility, they would not have likely been interviewed.

If companies want to keep up in today’s environment, traditional approaches to hiring need to be re-evaluated.

Here are a few suggestions to start transitioning to skills-based hiring:

  1. Evaluate current job descriptions. Specifically, evaluate the qualifications section of the job description. Focus on the skills and competencies that are essential for the role vs specifying specific years of experience. Consider both technical and soft skills. When I’ve created job postings, I create a small list of qualifications and expand the nice to haves in a section called “Desired Characteristics.” Human Resource professionals or organizational development consultants can provide guidance and insights.
  2. Introduce Assessments during Interviews. Improve the hiring process by introducing assessments. When I ran a test area in manufacturing, it was important that people had basic electrical knowledge to do the job safely. A 10-question assessment was provided to evaluate the employees to determine if they had the basic skills required for the job. Similarly, when I was hiring data scientists, we provided a scenario with incomplete data to see if the candidate had curiosity to find the missing information.
  3. Unconscious bias training. Recently, I have attended several unconscious bias training sessions. While I like to think I am open minded to differences, I realized that we all possess unconscious bias. With awareness, you can course correct and be more objective. Going back to the Joe example above, hiring managers can talk about the skills they need for the job vs. finding Joe’s replacement. Simply using words like, “I’m looking for a leader who can coach service technicians into reaching their potential, with strong technical acumen and good communication skills,” can tamper the bias.

The suggestions above are those I have practiced doing. In doing some research on the topic, 

I’ve learned that blind hiring is a widespread practice. By removing names and other identifying information, you can avoid unconscious bias. Diverse hiring panels can provide multiple perspectives, ensuring that a candidate’s skills are evaluated holistically rather than through a singular lens. The last suggestion that sounded intriguing was to introduce feedback mechanisms. Obtain feedback from people hired and managers to get perspective on the skills-based hiring process as it matures.


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