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  • Susanna Williams

A Trojan Horse for Skills-Based Hiring

Updated: Dec 20, 2019


“We just need to figure out what employers want!” a fellow consultant recently said in exasperation as she worked through revising her client offerings. The workforce development space is increasingly crowded with consultants and intermediaries hopefully offering a plethora of philanthropy-funded strategic training programs and webinars to get employers on board with the “skills-based hiring movement”. This, clearly, is a product employers should want, right? A new approach to hiring that helps them identify & hire unexpected talent in a tight labor market? An end to the skills-gap lament? Employers want a silver bullet- skills-based hiring is just what they’ve been asking for! (Consultants want steady revenue generation- skills-based hiring coaching is just what they need!) And yet, thus far, there doesn’t appear to be a direct market for these approaches, despite the best efforts of policy-makers like Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado and employers like CVS and Tufts Medical Center.

While the Walmart Foundation has been a generous funder of technologies and pilots, Walmart itself has yet to broadly adopt gateway skills-based hiring practices. What good are resources if no employers use them? Instead, employers all seem to be looking to each other to go first. A "not it" environment isn't exactly conducive to fostering a skills-based hiring revolution.

The truth is that, for many employers, human capital is a cost-center, a necessary but risk-laden component of an otherwise predictable business plan. Employees are subject to all sorts of problems, from showing up late (or not at all) to straight up embezzlement or (tragically) violence. The lower skill the job, the more challenges arise. Robots start to look awfully appealing after dealing with yet another employee issue.

Having a fully developed talent plan should be as integral to business as the business plan itself, but it rarely is. Work is created. People are hired to fit the needs of the business at the lowest cost the market will bear. (After all, studies have found that the “skills gap” disappears when wages are increased.)

So maybe the way in isn’t through the front door. Do we really need to get employers to buy into this idea? Or is it enough to provide them with the tools that will shape their behavior?

Maybe rather than devoting a fair amount of philanthropic capital to various intermediary organizations who will convene stakeholders and provide external professional development, the smart money would be focused on investing in tools that integrate into existing ATS systems- the very systems that have gotten us into this hiring mess to begin with.

Employers’ main job is not hiring and developing their human capital. That job, in fact, rarely is owned by anyone. “Human Resources” is often referred to as the biggest irony in business- neither human, nor a resource. Their job is frequently focused on ensuring compliance with the various laws around hiring and compensation- but most of all, they are focused on mitigating risk for the company. In a litigious society like the United States, any piece out of place is a window for a lawsuit. (We need tort reform, but luckily that’s not my circus, not my monkeys.) Can we, in effect, Trojan horse our way into getting employers on the skills-based hiring bandwagon? For small to medium sized employers whose primary concern is production & outcomes rather than fearing EEOC investigations, providing clean, friction-less, WYSIWYG technology that easily integrates into their existing systems (if they have any) is likely an easier lift than getting them to spend time rethinking their job descriptions and consciously adopting new hiring practices. Perhaps if the tools are more suited to the task, the mindset will follow.


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