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The secret to hiring is skills based

LinkedIn’s head of global talent acquisition explains everything you need to know to make skills-first hiring the norm.

The secret to hiring is skills based
[Source illustration: uniquepixel/Getty Images]

For most of my career, the way people got hired was based primarily on three things: the degree they earned, the job they had, or the people they knew. While their skills were important, these were the proxies we relied on to decide if someone was a good candidate. 

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That’s changing. Workers now understand how important it is to demonstrate the skills they have and learn the skills they want, especially as jobs evolve and they seek work that is more rewarding. And businesses, eager to fill roles in a uniquely constrained labor market, have begun to focus on whether people have the skills to get the job done.

As we emerge from this period of unrelenting change and dive headfirst into the new world of work emerging all around us, my best advice to hiring managers and candidates alike is to think about skills first. 

Skills emerge as the currency of today’s labor market

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that the share of highly skilled jobs has increased by 25% over the last 20 years, and that more than a billion jobs worldwide will be transformed by technology in the next decade. 

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Virtually every industry has been transformed by technology, and we’ve seen the top skills transform to reflect this new age of hybrid workplaces, where all functions are increasingly dependent on digital tools to collaborate and perform day-to-day tasks. Recent LinkedIn data shows the skill sets for jobs have changed by around 25% since 2015. By 2027, this number is expected to double. 

Indeed, the pandemic pulled the future forward, accelerating the need for digital skills across all sectors. And in a labor market where many people are reconsidering their career paths, it’s critical for them to understand which of their skills align to those needed in fast-growing and higher paying roles (and which skills are gaps). A cashier, for example, has a 70% skills match with a customer service representative, and a driver has a 57% skills match with a supply chain associate.

People are responding by continuous skill building. At LinkedIn, we saw our members add 286 million skills to their profiles in 2021, up 22% compared to 2020.

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Making skills-first hiring the norm

With the demand for new skills, a shift in how hiring managers find talent is long overdue. In the past, qualified people with the skills needed for a particular role might have been overlooked because of traditional criteria. Now we’re seeing less importance put on traditional proxies like degrees and more focus on finding talent whose skills match the opportunity.

In fact, our data shows that recruiters and employers are changing the way they source candidates. More than 40% of companies on LinkedIn rely on skills to search and identify job candidates. 

And while it’s still early days, the formula is working. Hirers finding talent using skills are 60% more likely to find a successful hire than those who are not relying on skills. 

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By shifting from traditional “must have” requirements to “preferred” or “nice to have,” hirers can expand their talent pools and more people can transition into better-paying jobs via the relevant skills they bring to the role, regardless of their background.

So where to start if you’re hiring? First, remove the barrier to entry with how you word the job description. Our data reveals that something as simple as changing the word requirements to responsibilities will get you 14% more applications per view.

Once you reach the interview phase, evaluate candidates by asking behavioral questions that allow them to speak to their abilities and skills. For example, if you’re hiring for a leadership role that requires empathy and resiliency and you notice that the candidate took a few years off to be a caretaker for a loved one, ask them questions that allow them to speak to how they had to leverage those skills during that time.  

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Be open to where and how candidates learn the skills that your positions require and make sure you’re not structuring your questions to focus only on traditional, professional situations. In a situation where they have taken time to care for a loved one, chances are they’ve learned skills crucial to leadership, like empathy and resilience, all while navigating complex healthcare systems and budgeting. 

Upskilling + reskilling = retention

By using skills as a signal for hiring, we can work to expand talent pools and make the hiring process more equitable. But what about current employees? According to a McKinsey & Co. report, 87% of companies say they have a skills gap or expect to have one within a few years.

For organizations, a skills-first mindset also means helping employees upskill and reskill. Our data shows that a majority of today’s employees consider opportunities to learn and grow as the number-one driver of a great work culture. They also say it’s important for managers to inspire learning and experimentation and want to be actively supported to advance internally. 

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Given a chance to make a move within the company, employees are more engaged, agile, and likely to stay. And with a skill-first mindset, there’s a new dimension to what types of steps count as advancement. Nonlinear moves, previously considered unconventional, are now encouraged so employees can learn new skills and expand their knowledge base. 

The investment in career transformation will prove to be worth it. We’ve found companies that excel at internal mobility retain employees nearly twice as long. 

Plus, professional development will only grow in importance as it’s especially top of mind to up-and-coming workers: More than three-quarters of Gen Z employees (who will soon make up nearly 30% of the workforce) say that learning is the key to a successful career

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Harnessing this momentum

We have a unique opportunity to change the way we hire and make skills count for more. A skills-first model to pinpoint new talent and grow existing talent from within is a more equitable and efficient way of doing things that will not only open more doors for workers to achieve economic mobility but also help them stay engaged and achieve the careers of their dreams. 

The task at hand is harnessing this momentum to bring a skills-first approach to talent development to life on a much larger scale. As companies focus on this more and more, I believe we will reach a defining moment in history where people can find jobs based on their collection of skills, not just on who they know or where they went to school—creating, supporting, and propelling a new kind of job marketplace.

It won’t happen overnight. But every small skills-first shift we make is in service of a vision that’s worth fighting for—a vision rooted in more equitable outcomes for individuals, better matches for hiring managers, and more engaged employees overall.

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Jennifer Shappley is LinkedIn’s head of global talent acquisition.


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