September 27, 2022

A Case for Skills-Based Hiring

When veterans return to civilian life after transitioning from military service, not only do they come home to family and friends and to a life that’s not situated on a militarybbase (or, say, on an aircraft carrier) – they return to civilian work life, as well. But one of the challenges many veterans face in making this transition is helping employers translate their military experience into civilian terms, so that they’re considered for open positions right alongside civilians who may have similar skill sets – but whose resumes present very differently.

Another challenge many veterans face in the job search process is the traditional requirement for many jobs that the applicant possess a college degree. While employers and recruiters are slowly evolving into more skills-based talent searches, the residual requirement that candidates have an earned college degree still persists in many job descriptions; and often for jobs whose skills don’t depend on a college education. This doesn’t only impact veterans, but they are certainly among the population affected by the college degree requirement.

A quick Shift anecdote illustrates this particular barrier faced by many veterans who have joined the available talent pool for sales positions – and yet may not get the job despite being fully competent in the necessary skills.

Shift had job placed an intern who was a member of the Department of Defense SkillBridge program – a program for those preparing to leave the service and interested in learning about specific jobs in an on-the-job context. The intern was looking for a customer-facing role, and he was excited about trying his hand at sales. He received the opportunity on a scaling team to learn the business development representative role, and he accepted.

After a month or so it became very apparent that this particular intern was standing out among the group of interns all learning a new role. He learned the tech stack and the ins and outs of the role quickly, showing leadership among his fellow trainees and offering support and guidance to anyone who needed it. He brought enthusiasm, hard work, and hunger to the team and continued to receive positive feedback from his manager throughout the internship.

And yet, when it came time to talk about converting his internship into a full-time role, everything came to a screeching halt.

In the company of his internship, there was an internal hiring rule that everyone in this role had to have a bachelor’s degree in order to be hired. And unfortunately, his manager didn’t have the authority to make an exception – even though she tried.

Similar, or even the same, position was no doubt offered to and filled by others who were less skilled at business development – but who held a college degree. And yet, is there a specific college degree that prepares a person for a business development representative role? For most who hold that position, the answer is no. They likely completed a degree in a liberal arts field, which then allowed them to match one of the non-experiential criteria for being hired.

The positive part of the story is this candidate went on to a successful career at another organization – bringing the eagerness, mission to succeed, and support for his teammates that makes any team, in any function, stronger. Shift doesn’t have information regarding whether this particular veteran ever completed a college degree, but there’s no reason to believe the skills and experiences he gained from his time in service aren’t at least equivalent to any degree he could have pursued prior to his internship. Military experience builds grit, tenacity, adaptability, and the ability to interact and work with others in a different way than the college experience; and in many cases, in a superior way.

The question for companies and recruiters is the following: for skills-based hiring, how do you replace what the college degree has always represented in a job description?

The newer manner of writing job descriptions focuses on competencies and skills, instead of degree requirements, grade point averages, and college majors. Focusing on skills entails looking at the peak performers in a role and breaking down what competencies and skills they’re using every day to be successful at their job. It also entails omitting from job descriptions some traditional elements that aren’t important for these employees to perform at a high level. Culling what’s consistent across the top performers in a specific role provides a lot more information for recruiters and hiring managers in a job description than basic requirements that don’t help with making any one candidate stand out from others.

If a candidate can describe their past experiences and the competencies and skills that were required for them to perform successfully in those contexts, that’s what interviewers want to hear about in the interview situation. For recruiters, if education and specific industry experience become less of a priority, the candidate pool expands. And identifying who’s right for the job from that broader candidate pool becomes a more precise endeavor – because the recruiter and hiring manager know exactly which skills they’re looking for.

Ultimately, then, what it all comes down to is this: if the company doesn’t identify which skills are critical to doing the job, how can they identify the best people to hire for it? And in that case, does a college degree really help with discerning those best suited to the position?

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