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How to recruit top talent when the right skills don’t exist.


Meredith Stack


The skills gap is real – and it is not going away. Historic low unemployment rates, digital transformation efforts, and evolving workplace needs are creating gaps in the labor pool that may never close.

Fully 75 percent of HR professionals who face difficulties in recruiting say there are significant skill gaps in their candidate pool, according to SHRM’s Skills Gap 2019 report, and more than half say the skills shortage has worsened in the past two years. These gaps exist across positions -- from plumbing and welding to highly skilled STEM roles.

Even candidates fresh out of college don’t have the skills employers expect them to bring to the workplace. A 2018 report from Bloomberg found 40 percent of corporations say recent graduates lack the “soft skills” they need to succeed. Emotional intelligence, complex reasoning, and negotiation and persuasion skills top the list. Another 24 percent say they lack hard skills, including computer literacy and written communication skills. And these pressures are only going to get worse.

A new report from Korn Ferry predicts that the global talent shortage is actually going to get worse, costing companies trillions of dollars in lost economic opportunity by 2030.

Look for learners.

In a talent economy where “skills gap” is the new normal, companies have had to let go of the expectation that employees will come to them ready to perform on day one. Instead, they are finding new ways to identify raw talent, then creating a “continuous learning” environment where new and existing employees can proactively learn new skills, and mentor the next generation of employees into evolving roles.

This learning centric workplace demands a new kind of talent search, where recruiters focus more on potential than pedigree. This frees them to look beyond top tier colleges to source talent from underserved talent populations (vets, the disabled, stay-at-home moms), and to consider candidates from boot camps, apprenticeship programs, community college and those who are self-taught.

In theory, this should expand the talent pool significantly; however, the challenge is figuring out which candidates in these new pools have what it takes to thrive in the workplace, and possess the attitude, attributes, and ambition to learn on the job continuously.

Here are a few ways to find them.

  • Promote your continuous learning environment. In every recruiting touchpoint, from job postings to social media to career fairs, talk about your commitment to learning. Let candidates know what kind of training they can expect, what long term development opportunities they will have, and what you will expect in terms of skill development to succeed on the job. This will help bolster your employer brand to learning-focused candidates – and deter those who are happy to stick with the skills they have.
  • Look for proof of lifelong learning. When considering candidates, look beyond their past job experiences to see what they’ve done on their own. Have they taught themselves a programming language? Hosted a blog? Do they contribute to conversations in industry networking groups or volunteer for community projects? These outside efforts suggest candidates are willing to put themselves out there, to learn new skills, and to share their knowledge with the world. That’s the kind of employee who will thrive in a continuous learning environment.
  • Use assessments to vet their potential. Assessments provide recruiters with quick and concise insights into the skills and attributes a candidate brings to the table. It also allows them to look for specific features, like adaptability, creativity, problem-solving ability, and motivation, all of which suggest a person will do well in a learning environment.
  • Talk about their learning process. In interviews, ask candidates to share a time they had to learn a new skill and how they went about it; and/or give them an unfamiliar workplace scenario and ask how they would figure out what to do. Look for clues in how they would learn and the resources they would use, as well as the enthusiasm they show for the process.
  • Ask what they know about your company. A lifelong learner will have done a little research on you and your industry before coming to the interview. If they haven’t, it could be a red flag.

Vetting candidates from alternative sources isn’t easy, but there is a lot of talent to be found when you look beyond the same handful of colleges and job boards. If you are willing to dig a little deeper, and judge talent on their ability to learn rather than what they’ve already accomplished, you can find amazing candidates who can become valuable additions to your team.

A candidate fresh out of school without much experience, but a lot of potential

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