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Advice for Employers and Recruiters

Skills-based hiring sounds great, but how do employers measure those skills?

Image courtesy of Shutterstock
Image courtesy of Shutterstock
Anita Jobb AvatarAnita Jobb
December 27, 2023

We’ve been doing a fair amount of thinking and writing recently about the long overdue but most welcome shift by employers away from hiring candidates based largely on what school they attended, what their majors were, and even what their job titles were with previous employers and to a more scientifically validated method: skills-based hiring.

Instead of hiring candidates based on the inferences an employer might draw from what the candidate has done in the past, skills-based hiring means that employers objectively measure the relevant skills of applicants and, sometimes, candidates before they even apply. The candidates whose skills are measured as being the best move forward in the hiring process, even if they didn’t happen to attend the “right” school, have the “right” major, or have the “right” job experience.

But all of that begs the question: how do you measure job-related skills? If the method to measure the skills is highly subjective, it isn’t really skills-based hiring but, instead, is kind of like putting lipstick onto a pig. At the end of the day, it is still just a pig. To answer this question, we asked 13 seasoned recruiters, CEOs, and other hiring experts how they objectively measure skills when deciding whether to move a candidate forward in the hiring process.

Evaluate Technical Articulation and Initiative

All hiring for any kind of career opportunity is skills-based, especially in anything IT/Tech-related. A candidate’s ability and talent with the applicable skills are evaluated in several ways. 

The first is open-ended questions (because that’s all you’re going to get in an interview anyway), i.e., “Tell me about your experience with X” (software development, networking, QA testing, etc.), then see how well they can articulate in detail about their experience or knowledge with X. If you get meandering answers with no real substance, they are not going forward with me because 10 years of experience has proven time and time again that the person most able to articulate technical details about their capabilities is the one getting hired 99% of the time. 

In the case of software developers, I usually ask first whether they have public-facing work or not, and the ones that can give me URLs for their work get 10 times the priority. Similarly, for marketing people, a portfolio of work is a must, and it goes without saying, make sure it is your best work. Make sure web pages have no errors or any lazily written code. 

Marketing people, make sure you get several different mediums included in your portfolio. For performance-based roles, can candidates validate their ability and can they quantify the results/impact of their work? 

Lastly, I identify the one skill that is needed that they don’t have or have little of, and I give them one day to see what they can learn. Laziness on this action item rules out 90 percent or more people. Job descriptions are an employer’s disclaimer: you must know X to be successful in this role at the level we will expect of you. 

Two people always come to the interview: one says, “I have experience with 90 percent of the required skills for this, and I can pick up X with a little training” (the employer hears: “I am going to cost time and money right out of the gate for me and someone to train me, there is no guarantee I can pick up this skill, and I don’t take the initiative”)… versus the one who says, “I know X is important to this role because you took the time to add it to the job description, so I took the time on my end to learn how to do A, B, and C with X, and these are the steps I would take to do those things: 1, 2, 3.” 

That candidate just showed that they can learn X (and other things as they come up), they are not entitled and don’t want to cost their future employer money on something they can do/learn for themselves, and that they take initiative and don’t need someone to hold their hand. 

Which would you hire?

Matthew Jones, Senior IT Recruiter, VIP Staffing

Assess Personal Values and Organization

I like to analyze a candidate based on his outlook on things outside of work. I always start with, “What are your plans for the week?” This gives me a brief idea of how well-organized the candidate is and where his priorities lie. 

The next question that I prefer to ask is about their friends and their backgrounds. I cross-question to ensure it is not a surface-level friendship and to understand their upbringing and values, which can provide insight into their character and behavior.

Sally Johnson, CEO and Founder, Green Light Booking

Review Résumé Details and Soft Skills

In order for me to effectively measure the skills of applicants, it is vital to consider the specific job they are applying for. For administrative positions, my evaluation begins with a thorough review of their résumé and cover letter. Attention to detail is a key indicator of success. If they cannot take the first step of ensuring their application materials are correct, it raises doubts about their capability to deliver the high-quality work my hiring manager expects.

However, it is important to note that skills are not solely determined by what is written on a résumé. I often gain insights into a candidate’s skill set through a phone screen or an in-person interview. During these interactions, I assess their presentation skills, communication abilities, and punctuality. These soft skills hold immense importance in various industries, particularly in healthcare.

Alysia Straw, aPHR, SHRM-CP, Recruiter, Springfield Hospital

Judge Communication and Problem-Solving Skills

If the candidate has a solid resume and applicable job history, the skills I’m judging most during an interview are their soft skills. Things like being able to communicate effectively or come up with creative solutions to problems—those are the skills that can’t be taught. 

And from a candidate’s perspective, would you want to take a position where they only want a finite set of tested skills with no space to learn or grow? Technical interviews can be most helpful where there’s no standout selection, but often it’s just another unnecessary hoop to jump through that slows the whole interview process.

Taylor Desseyn, Sr. Recruiter Advocate, Vaco

Implement Blind Interviews for Unbiased Assessment

We do blind interviews. I believe that blind interview methods help us eliminate any hidden biases in our hiring process. We look at candidates without seeing their names or any personal details on their resumes or profiles. Also, our pre-tests for candidates are anonymous.

This way, we can assess candidates’ personalities without knowing who they are, which can lead to more diversity in our organization. Diversity in the workplace matters because it leads to higher productivity. I prefer this approach because it ensures fairness, focuses purely on skills and potential, and helps us build a team that brings a variety of perspectives and ideas, which is crucial for innovation and problem-solving.

Precious Abacan, Marketing Director, Softlist

Utilize Pre-Employment Tests for Skill Measurement

Pre-employment tests are an absolute imperative when adopting skills-based hiring. 

Experience-based hiring merely assumes skills based on educational and occupational experience, which are both weak predictors of skills at best. It also draws too heavily on interviews when gauging skills, despite the fact that interviews are only reliable measures of communication skills. 

Pre-employment tests, however, allow you to measure the specific skills that matter in real time. Moreover, they can be employed to measure almost any type of skill, i.e., soft skills, hard skills, technical skills, cognitive skills, etc. 

Research is extremely clear that these assessments are powerful predictors of future performance, and consequently, effective measures of workplace-relevant skills. Therefore, I strongly recommend that skills-based organizations make liberal use of pre-employment tests, allowing you to truly measure what matters most.

Ben Schwencke, Business Psychologist, Test Partnership

Apply Skill Benchmarking and Role-Specific Rubrics

Evaluating applicants based on skills rather than credentials alone is essential for identifying those equipped to thrive within our innovative company. However, with technical qualifications spanning a vast array, defining and measuring such competencies poses challenges. Through skill benchmarking and role-specific rubrics tailored to needs, our process aims to assess abilities objectively.

For example, we capture problem-solving aptitude and quick-learning capability by testing analytical thinking or programming competency relative to real work examples through standardized questions and tasks. Supplementing such quantified gauges, we probe past experiences demonstrating initiative and drive to determine cultural alignment. 

Still, in the early stages of refining this methodology, balancing rigor with practicality, the approach shows immense promise for surfacing candidates with the intrinsic spark best poised to excel.

Lou Reverchuk, Co-Founder and CEO, EchoGlobal

Align Skills with Role Requirements

The world of work and hiring is evolving. Along with this evolution, there are basic concepts and practices that have been used for decades that still apply to hiring the right skill set for the role. Employers who fail to adopt skills-based recruitment practices will find themselves left behind in the fiercely competitive job market of 2024. 

While skills-based hiring is not a new concept, its importance has grown in recent years. 

But what exactly is skills-based recruitment and hiring? Skills-based hiring acknowledges that true mastery in any role comes from hands-on experience, practical knowledge, and a profound understanding of one’s craft. By shifting the evaluation process to prioritize skills and competencies over traditional qualifications or degrees, employers gain access to a vast pool of untapped talent that might have been overlooked due to educational disparities. 

Adapting hiring practices to prioritize skills is crucial for companies seeking to maintain a competitive edge. Not only does skills-based hiring identify candidates with the right expertise, but it also fosters a more inclusive and progressive work environment. By wholeheartedly embracing this pragmatic approach, organizations unlock the potential of skills and pave the way for a brighter, more equitable future where hiring is based on the precise skill set required for each role. 

As a recruiter, my approach is centered around unpacking the need for a degree versus the value of skills gained through work experience. I work closely with hiring managers to understand their requirements and align them with the skills that potential candidates possess. Together, we delve into what it truly takes to excel in a role from a skills-based perspective. This collaborative process ensures that we are on the same page when searching for the ideal candidate with the necessary skills. 

However, if there is a misalignment between the job post, recruiter, and hiring team regarding the skills needed, it is essential for organizational leaders, along with recruitment teams, to push back and hold their hiring teams accountable for identifying the skills it truly takes to be successful in a role. It is crucial to lean into the details and establish a clear understanding of the skills required to thrive in the roles. This commitment to accuracy ensures that only the most suitable candidates are considered and ultimately hired. 

The future of hiring lies in embracing skills-based recruitment.

Rachel Kitty Cupples, Senior Recruiter, Textio

Provide Skills-Based Assignments and Questions

The most important thing is to remain consistent in your assessment because every candidate needs to be measured by the same “stick.” I like to give a short, skills-based assignment ahead of the interview to give candidates time to work through the challenge and fill out their solutions thoughtfully, because not everyone performs well on the spot in an interview. 

Still, it’s nice to include at least a few interview questions that allow candidates to flex their skills. They should be relatively simple to meet the faster pace of an in-person interview but deep enough to help you understand where a candidate’s skill level sits.

Robert Kaskel, Chief People Officer, Checkr

Focus on Relevant Experience and Core Metrics

Speaking from an agency perspective, our clients want to know if candidates have directly relevant experience to the open position. It is rare, at least in the insurance industry, for folks to get hung up on college degrees. Instead, what they look for are required licenses and hands-on experience with accounts in their target markets.

To ensure alignment with a position, I ask candidates to elaborate on their demonstrated impact and core metrics. I want to know the general size of the accounts they manage and how much of their day is spent on duties such as marketing accounts, client management, customer service, production/sales, etc.

Know your business and what your hiring managers value. Learn to lay out the quantitative evidence for how your candidate meets those needs and supplement your justifications with the soft skills they bring to the table.

Emily Smith, Recruiter, The Jonus Group

Use Situational Judgment Tests for Decision-Making

We employ Situational Judgment Tests (SJTs) to identify candidates with the best skills, regardless of their educational background, degrees, or previous job positions.

Situational Judgment Tests are behavioral evaluations that assess a candidate’s decision-making and judgment skills. In our practice, we present candidates with hypothetical scenarios relevant to the workplace, along with a variety of possible solutions. The candidates are then asked to rank or rate the effectiveness of each action, demonstrating their decision-making ability. These tests are highly relevant to the workplace, as they predict performance in specific roles. 

We use SJTs because research indicates they are more effective in predicting job performance than just ability tests and personality questionnaires. This means that, when combined with these other assessments, SJTs significantly enhance the practical utility of our hiring process.

Amy Tribe, Director, OGLF (Our Good Living Formula)

Assess Skills Through Portfolio Showcases

I utilize a “portfolio showcase” method. Candidates present a curated portfolio showcasing their past projects, achievements, and relevant work samples. This visual representation allows for a comprehensive evaluation of their skills, creativity, and depth of experience. 

Reviewing their portfolio enables a direct assessment of their practical abilities and contributions in previous roles, providing insights into their expertise and suitability for the position. This method emphasizes tangible evidence of skills, fostering a nuanced understanding of candidates’ capabilities beyond traditional assessments.

Jeremy Resmer, CEO, Value Land Buyers

Quantify Outcomes in Skills-Based Questions

When using a skills-based hiring approach, it is best to ask questions that can be quantified. Ask the candidate about the outcome and have them explain how they got there. That way, they can talk through the skills that were used to generate the positive outcome. Skills-based hiring is on the rise and weighs more heavily than experience, in my opinion.

Caroline Pennington, Executive Search Recruiter, Podcast Host, Founder, Feminine Founder

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