Skills-First Hiring: What It Is and Why You Should Try It

A cornerstone of CareerPlug’s hiring philosophy is hiring for growth potential. This means hiring someone not based on what jobs they’ve held in the past or a particular college degree, but hiring them based on the potential that they will be a long-term fit on your team, even if it means a little extra ramp-up time. 

Now, in the hiring and recruitment world, a similar approach, skills-first hiring has gained steam, and employers everywhere are realizing that sometimes the best candidates may not need a specific education or previous job title to be highly qualified to succeed in a role. 

Skills-first hiring flips traditional candidate evaluation methods on their heads, and can actually be a beneficial way to approach hiring that leads to great employees and increased productivity and retention. 

In this article, we’re taking a closer look at what skills-first hiring is, plus why (and how) you should implement it in your hiring process. 

What is “skills-first” hiring? 

Skills-first hiring, as the name implies, is a method of hiring where you focus on someone’s skills and abilities to do a job, instead of only focusing on educational requirements or prior experience in a similar role. 

Now to be clear, some jobs will always have degree requirements for good reason – you wouldn’t hire a nurse that hasn’t gone through the appropriate college education and licensing exams. 

However, for many industries, degree requirements may be superfluous, especially if the candidate has real-world experience working and gaining knowledge in nontraditional ways. Plus, requiring a college degree causes employers to overlook large populations of workers that don’t always have access to higher education. 

It’s estimated that about 70% of job postings list degree requirements, while only about 42% of white adults have one. That number is lower for black and hispanic adults, – 28% and 21% respectively.  

In addition to reconsidering degree requirements, skills-first hiring tackles another missed opportunity in traditional hiring – requiring workers to have specific job titles or years of experience in the same role as the one you’re hiring for. A skills-first hiring approach acknowledges that employees may have skills that transfer across industries, and a proven track record of being a great employee, in a variety of different roles.

For example, a retail sales associate may be able to demonstrate the interpersonal skills that would make them an outstanding hotel concierge, or the persuasive communication skills that would make them great at marketing. The goal is to identify high-performers in any role and dig deeper to find ways they can use their skills to excel on your team in a new way. 

Soft skills vs hard skills 

When approaching skills-first hiring, it’s important to differentiate between the different types of skills that candidates bring to the table. 

Hard skills are more in line with someone’s experience. These are teachable skills, like changing the oil in a car, managing inventory, and operating a point-of-sale system. 

Soft skills are harder to teach, and are inherent qualities in a person like patience, self-motivation, and being good at conflict resolution. 

CareerPlug President Jenny Leman recommends, “Employers should look for soft skills when hiring and be willing to teach the hard skills on the job.” 

hiring for soft skills

Leman shares an example: “With a customer facing role, I’d rather hire someone who naturally builds warm rapport and trust with customers and demonstrates strong self-motivation and teach them how to do the job vs. hiring someone who could do that job with their eyes closed on day one, but isn’t naturally warm and engaging with customers or motivated to really bring the ‘wow factor’ to the customer interaction.”

Why should you take a skills-first approach? 

Skills-first hiring is gaining popularity. According to LinkedIn, 40% of companies took a skills-first approach to source and identify candidates last year, and 75% of recruiters say they are prioritizing skills when looking for talent.  

But if you’re used to evaluating candidates in a certain way, it can be hard to shift your focus to skills based hiring, and you may worry that it would lead to hiring under-qualified candidates.

Well, we’re here to bust that myth and to show you several great reasons why a skills-first approach can actually improve your hiring process, broaden your applicant pool, and create a stronger workforce. 

benefits of skills-first hiring

Increase your applicant pool

The competition for talent is tighter than it’s ever been before: 77% of employers report having difficulty filling open roles.  

Hiring is even harder when you don’t have many applicants to choose from. But skills-first hiring can actually expand your applicant pool and give you more choices. 

Consider this: if you’re looking for a new customer service representative for your business, and you’re only considering applicants that have worked in customer service or in your specific industry before, you will have a fairly limited pool made up of only people with that specific background. 

However, applicants that have worked in restaurants or in retail are just as likely to have the skills you need to perform well in your role. If you expand your search to include applicants that have a broader range of work experience, you may double, triple, or even quadruple your applicant pool! 

When you’ve minimized requirements for the exact number of years or experience, certain degrees or experience in a specific role, you are encouraging more people with diverse backgrounds to apply. This gives you more options, and can help you find the right person sooner. 

Reduce hiring bias and increase diversity 

As mentioned, unnecessary degree requirements can discriminate against groups of people that typically have less access to higher education. Historically marginalized groups don’t always have the resources they need to obtain a four year degree and are often excluded from certain industries.  

A skills-first hiring process is a more objective hiring process. With skills-first hiring, you are more likely to consider often overlooked candidates. It can also help you reduce unconscious bias, which are flawed shortcuts your brain might make when meeting candidates. (An example would be giving a candidate preferential treatment because you went to the same university.)

Reducing hiring bias with skills-based candidate evaluation will help you create a more diverse workforce. A diverse workforce is beneficial for many reasons. A group of employees with many different backgrounds keeps fresh ideas coming to the table, and is often a workforce that is more creative, productive, and innovative. 

Improve retention 

When you hire someone based on the skills they have, and the track record of performing well in other roles, you’re taking a chance on their growth potential – or their ability to succeed in a role, even if they haven’t worked a similar one specifically. 

At CareerPlug, we believe that hiring for growth potential is one the best ways to build a loyal and happy workforce. It’s also an indication to your employees that you’re hiring them for careers, not just jobs. 

Giving employees a chance, and showing them they have a path for growth at your company leads to better retention of your team. It creates a workforce that’s excited to work for your company and more likely to stick around.  

CareerPlug founder and CEO, Clint Smith, sums up this sentiment: “Giving the right person a chance can help you earn employees for life. There’s something special about being the first organization to give someone a shot and make them feel like they have a career. Over the years, the people that have been the most loyal are the ones that I gave a shot early on. Maybe on paper they didn’t have the right qualifications but I hired them for their potential.” 

hiring for growth potential

How to create a skills-first hiring process

Skills-first hiring may feel risky, but you can take this approach and still get high quality applicants and great results. Let’s cover some changes you can make to implement this in your hiring process. 

Include soft skills in your job descriptions 

According to LinkedIn data, job posts that list skills attract more applicants and have a higher view-to-apply rate. 

When you’re not only listing specific job titles, job seekers are more likely to align themselves with your position and more easily determine if it’s a good opportunity. Job seekers may see themselves as having the skills you are looking for even if they haven’t held a similar role before. 

One job seeker we spoke to had this to say, regarding what attracts them to apply to a job posting: “I like finding postings that align with my skill set… I get pumped to apply when they say things like they’ll accept experience in place of degrees.”

When listing the qualifications for your role, of course, you’ll include the “must-have” requirements (hard skills), like a certain license or experience with X software. But also think about the soft skills that would make someone a great fit for your role. Some examples: 

  • Creativity
  • Adaptability
  • Teamwork
  • Problem-solving 
  • Time management 

Recruit from more applicant sources 

At CareerPlug, if there’s one thing we’re constantly shouting from the rooftops it’s this: Job boards aren’t always the best source of highly qualified candidates. Every year, in our Recruiting Metrics Report we find that custom sources are also a great source of top talent. 

Applicants from custom sources are 4.5 times more likely to be hired than those from job boards. And since there are a variety of ways people gain skills (outside of the traditional routes), looking for talent in diverse channels can help prioritize skills in your hiring process.

For example, Slack, the workplace messaging app, seeks talent outside of traditional pipelines, like recruiting at an all women’s coding camp, and as a result, increases representation of women and minorities in an underrepresented industry. 

You can follow suit. Consider recruiting from skills-based educational programs and source candidates that have completed “boot camps” or online skills certifications. You can also meet great candidates at networking events or conferences – both in and out of your industry. 

Our clients have also seen success recruiting from underutilized applicant sources such as local and community job boards and Facebook job groups, chamber of commerce websites, and customer referral emails.

Rethink how you do candidate assessments 

Skills-based assessments can help you test whether a candidate has the qualities you’re looking for and that they can demonstrate the skills they’ve listed on their resume or in their application. 

If you’re using an applicant tracking system like CareerPlug that comes with built-in candidate evaluation assessments, you can quickly test their math and verbal skills, as well as personality traits. Once a candidate completes an assessment, you can see how their skills break down into different areas:

candidate assessments in Careerplug

Pro tip: To keep your candidates engaged, we recommend doing a quick phone screen interview as the first part of your candidate evaluation process. This gives you a way to touch base with potential candidates, tell them about the role, and ensure they are ok with the responsibilities and compensation. A great candidate may be thrown off by having to complete assessments before ever talking to someone about the role. 

Create a structured interview process 

Structured interviews help you measure candidates using the same objective criteria, reduce hiring bias, create a better candidate experience and make better hiring decisions. 

When focusing on skills in your hiring process, a structured interview can really help you dig in and understand someone’s ability, motivation, and trajectory. Instead of looking for the exact experience as the role you’re filling, get curious about what makes your candidate tick and how they’ve approached their other jobs in the past. 

Behavioral questions ask candidates to talk about times when they’ve exhibited certain skills:  

  • Tell me about a time when you knew less than others about a topic or task. What did you do to get up to speed? 
  • Tell me about a time when you went beyond your manager’s expectations to get the job done.
  • Tell me about a time you dealt with a difficult customer. How did you handle the situation? 

And motivational questions can help you learn more about a candidate’s mindset: 

  • When did you take on new responsibilities in your role? What or who initiated this change? 
  • Tell me about a time you failed at something. How did you deal with that?
  • When was the last time you received feedback? How did you respond to it? 

Skills-based hiring – Ready to try it? 

Skills-first hiring is gaining traction and for good reason. Taking a skill-first approach helps businesses attract more applicants, evaluate candidates better, reduce hiring bias, and improve retention. 

Making changes to your hiring process can help you focus on the skills a candidate has, instead of a certain educational or professional background. When you begin considering often overlooked candidates for your open roles, you are creating new opportunities for both them and your business. 

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Make better hiring decisions with our candidate evaluation tools like pre-screen application questions, a built-in assessment library, and interview scorecards. Click the button below to learn more about our easy-to-use hiring software!


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