When Integral Molecular moved into a larger, state-of-the-art research and manufacturing facility in Philadelphia in April, leaders knew staffing would be a top priority. The pandemic had marked a period of rapid growth for the firm, which develops a variety of medical therapeutics, including technology designed to support COVID-19 vaccines. And while the pandemic is no longer considered a global public health emergency, Integral Molecular is still scaling up.
According to talent acquisition manager Adetoun Adeniji-Adele, the company expects to double its workforce in the next five years — from 100 to 200 employees. Skills-based hiring will be essential to that process, she said.
In skills-based hiring, the skills candidates possess carry more weight than their educational achievements or previous work experience. These skills may be demonstrated through certificates and certifications or through assessment tests designed to evaluate whether an individual can perform the necessary tasks.
For Integral Molecular, moving to the larger facility means there are additional laboratories and an increased demand for laboratory managers and manufacturing supervisors to support scientists.
“[These candidates] don’t necessarily have to have a four-year degree,” Adeniji-Adele said. “They could have expertise from other manufacturing roles in other industries. So, we’re asking, ‘Who are the people we can bring in for the kind of roles we have now that are skills-based?’
“We really think we can bring in and train people,” she added. “Quality assurance and quality control, for instance, are places where skills-based certifications come into line.”
To that end, Integral Molecular created partnerships with the Community College of Philadelphia to develop internships and training programs for laboratory technicians. Additionally, an area nonprofit, the University City Science Center, runs a program called “Building an Understanding of Lab Basics” that provides training for lab workers without a degree requirement.
New Rules for Hiring
Integral Molecular is just one of a growing number of companies embracing skills-based hiring to fill open positions.
Google is another.
“Our focus is on demonstrated skills and experience, and this can come through degrees or it can come through relevant experience,” said Grow with Google founder Lisa Gevelber. “We also consider certificates, such as Google Career Certificates, as experience for roles.”
In fact, according to a survey of 2,736 employers and 2,666 candidates from TestGorilla, an online pre-employment testing platform, 76% of employers are using some form of skills-based hiring, with 55% using skills assessment tests. Respondents linked the practice to faster hiring rates, better retention and more diverse workplaces.
“If you rely on the tried-and-true methods of posting jobs with degree requirements rather than on-the-job training or assessing the experience [individuals] bring to the job, you’re just not going to be able to fill those jobs,” said Melissa Barker, vice president of practice development at The Duffy Group, a Phoenix-based recruiting firm.
One of the factors driving skills-based hiring is the growing push to bring greater diversity to workforces.
Opportunity@Work is a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that partners with Fortune 500 companies like Google and IBM to assist them with hiring people “skilled through alternative routes,” or STARs. The organization defines STARs as individuals who are 25 or older; are active in the labor force; have a high school diploma or the equivalent; and have developed their skills through avenues such as community college, apprenticeships, bootcamps and on-the-job training.
According to Angela Briggs-Paige, Opportunity@Work’s vice president of people and culture, Black and Hispanic individuals, along with veterans, make up the majority of STARs participants.
“When you focus on skills-based hiring, you’re automatically embedding diversity, equity and inclusion into your program,” she said. On the flip side, “you’re really limiting your labor pool by relying on education as a proxy for skills.”
More Work on the Front End
But for skills-based hiring to work, employers have to be clear on what skills and competencies are needed for each role, said Briggs-Paige. That means employers will need to better define desired qualities on the front end of the recruitment process.
Understanding the skills needs for certain roles was part of the process when Google expanded its Google Career Certificates offerings to include options for cybersecurity and advanced data analytics, two rapidly growing fields. The program offers courses in a variety of IT areas, usually acquired within three to six months, and are accepted by a variety of employers. Developing the certificates included analyses of job requirements and consultations with employers, Gevelber said.
“To develop each certificate, we conduct a job-task and skills analysis to create a deep understanding of what’s needed for an entry-level role,” she said. “Subject matter experts at Google develop all of our certificates and vet them with top employers.”
Hannah Johnson, head of tech and talent programs at CompTIA, a nonprofit trade association that issues professional certifications for the information technology industry, said the pandemic brought HR leaders and department heads closer in conversations about designing job roles for both internal and external hires.
Because the pandemic increased hiring demand and intensified concerns about overall wellness, many organizations have taken what Johnson called a “dual approach” to talent: conducting a “robust skills inventory” of current and future job roles, while also looking at employee satisfaction and professional-development needs. For example, CompTIA recently launched a Tech Job Listing Optimizer that helps employers focus on skills for jobs, not just degree requirements.
And companies are invested in that work. According to an April 2023 CompTIA report on workforce and learning trends, 78% of HR professionals surveyed said they will be upgrading or adopting a skills inventory or career pathways platform. In time, AI may provide assistance in identifying skills and writing job descriptions, according to the report.
According to Johnson, organizations are asking themselves, “How are we really looking for talent within our organization?”
“To solve that question,” she said, “we need to think about how we are currently assessing and viewing the talent in our organization. And to do that, we need to do a robust skills inventory of the roles that we currently have and what we believe is necessary to be successful in those roles.”
“If you rely on the tried-and-true methods of posting jobs with degree requirements rather than on-the-job training or assessing the experience [individuals] bring to the job, you’re just not going to be able to fill those jobs.”
Conducting Skills Assessments
When it comes to assessments, many employers are looking to evaluate not only candidates’ technical skills but also their “durable” or “soft” skills, such as communication, collaboration and project management.
Similar to Google, CompTIA has added new credentials around cybersecurity, cloud computing and networking to its offerings. Some of CompTIA’s credentials have durable-skills assessments built in, Johnson said. That means people pursuing the credential are trained both in a technical skill and in how they might answer a question about their knowledge of that skill during an interview.
“We recognized that while the technical skills are necessary for these roles, the durable skills are just as important in some cases,” she said. “It’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all solution. We have learners who were recently incarcerated or did not finish high school, and what you’re teaching them is going to be a little different than what you teach somebody coming out of a two-year or associate degree program.”
Similarly, interview processes may also need to be adapted for skills-based hiring. Rather than having a top-down approach where managers lead interviews, Integral Molecular has found that peer-based interviewing works better.
“If you’re only having Ph.D.s interview candidates, that may create a feeling of separation with the people you’re bringing in,” Adeniji-Adele said. “Our research associates, who are a little more junior but have been with the company longer, are part of the interview process.”
While skills assessments are meant to level the playing field, employers shouldn’t assume that they are unbiased. For example, Opportunity@Work works with its partners to reduce bias in its interview questions.
“We’re challenging [partners] to talk about, ‘Is this valid?’” Briggs-Paige said. “‘Are we eliminating bias from these questions? Are we treating each person the same in terms of what we’re evaluating?’”
In January, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Chance to Compete Act, which shifts federal hiring rules toward a more skills-based environment. (At press time, the bill was waiting to be passed in the Senate.)
But legislation notwithstanding, more work needs to be done by companies if they want to find the right people with the right skills for specific roles. One of the challenges is making sure hiring managers understand how skills-based hiring works and how they can use it effectively.
“This isn’t just about creating the desired set of skills and competencies required to do the job,” Briggs-Paige said. “We’re asking people to really think about how they’re training their hiring managers because the process needs to be consistent across all job openings.” Training sessions should include how to identify key skills needed for the role and how to develop job postings, interview questions and skills assessments.
According to The Duffy Group’s Barker, resistance to skills-based hiring is often a function of company size: The bureaucracy and red tape that larger companies are more likely to encounter have made them slower to scrutinize skill requirements and build new hiring processes.
There are some tenets of talent acquisition and development that skills-based hiring won’t change. For example, candidates still need to be more actively courted and strong onboarding processes will continue to be crucial to ensuring retention.
Onboarding should look beyond just the first week or month on the job and into the first year, according to Briggs-Paige.
“We have to pay more attention to make sure that people feel like they belong in the organization and understand what’s expected of them, that they know what’s required in the role — and that’s going to be the same if you have a degree or not,” she said.
And regardless of industry and what skillsets are required for a particular role, Barker said, companies will need to pursue employees who demonstrate engagement with the employer.
“You’re looking for people who have a passion for the mission of the organization,” she said. “Those people might not have the degree requirements, but they have the skills and they have the passion to want to do what the organization does. The people that you really want in your company — whether it’s public or private or anywhere else — you really want them to want to work there because that’s what makes people successful in their job.”
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