There is a critical shortage of people in the labor force with the right credentials. Many job descriptions list a four-year degree requirement when that is not at all necessary for success on the job. At the same time, hiring managers can't be certain that even candidates with elite credentials in fact have the skills and knowledge necessary for success. Of course, people with degrees that companies find useful are in good shape, but many others finish college saddled with debt and no prospects for making a sustainable living. A recent Wall Street Journal survey highlighted a growing opinion that traditional college is not as attractive now as in the past. In short, businesses are using increasingly questionable credentials as barriers to entry. However, there is a clear and workable pathway out of this situation.

There are many useful free resources now for education outside the traditional paths. Khan Academy provides online courses and tools to provide a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere. It was originally developed as a way to fill in the gaps left by traditional elementary and secondary schools, but has expanded since then. Saylor Academy has focused on free college-level education courses representing the ten highest enrollment majors in the US. There are many other options for free high-quality education, including MIT OpenCourseWare, that have traditionally been only available in university settings. In addition, coding and other technical boot camps offer a wide range of opportunities for micro-credentialing. But these attractive resources aren't enough.

Exciting and positive as alternatives like these may be, they aren't real options for most people who have not been exposed to them, and who have not had the resources and encouragement to learn more broadly. For reasons well-documented elsewhere, many capable kids do not graduate from secondary schools with the knowledge and skills to succeed in college or in good jobs. People need access to resources, and the encouragement to take advantage of them, before they can develop the aptitudes needed for success. Helping all people develop meaningful skills valued by businesses should be a primary national goal. But this won't be accomplished without major shifts in thinking and innovation in education. However, many organizations are finding new pathways to success for those who have not had traditional access to the credentials of skill and knowledge development.

Ginni Rometty, former CEO and Chairman of IBM, realized that the company was facing a crisis of talent early in her tenure, noting that half the good jobs in the country are over-credentialed. Many of the positions IBM was trying to fill didn't require a four-year degree, although that was listed as a requirement. She began to change the hiring and promotion focus to defining and assessing the skills necessary for success, not the degree credentials on the job descriptions. As she noted in Good Power, her best-selling book chronicling her career and tenure at IBM, this was a tough battle but it yielded great success for the company.

Post retirement, Rometty remains involved in the skills-first movement as Co-Chair of OneTen, an organization devoted to the hiring, promoting and advancing of one million Black people who don't have a four-year degree into family-sustaining careers over the next ten years. The organization takes a skills-first approach, focusing on competencies (not credentials), to increase opportunities and build potential for future generations. OneTen's board of directors and advisors consists of many current and former CEOs of highly visible major US companies, but this is not just window dressing. They're all concerned about finding good talent while offering more opportunities to people who may have faced unnecessary barriers to earning a degree, and they're pursuing the skills-first strategy to do so. Thus, they're offering success strategies by looking forward, rather than focusing on needless credentials, past wrongs, mistakes, obstacles or societal shortcomings to get ahead. This is the essence of leadership: defining and acknowledging reality while offering hope and a way forward.

Skills-first hiring, also known as competency-based hiring, prioritizes a candidate's skills, experience, and abilities over their education, credentials, or other traditional hiring criteria. This approach is becoming more widespread and necessary for several reasons:

  1. It focuses on what matters most. Skills-first hiring assesses the specific skills and abilities required for the job, rather than relying on general criteria like education or years of experience. This ensures that candidates are actually capable of doing the job and are a good fit for the role, not just that they check the credentials boxes.
  2. It reduces bias. Traditional hiring methods often favor candidates from certain backgrounds or with certain credentials. Skills-first hiring helps to remove some of these barriers by focusing solely on the candidate's skills and experience.
  3. It improves diversity in ideas and candidates not by checking the required demographic boxes, but by broadening the legitimately qualified applicant pool. Candidates who may not have had access to the same educational opportunities or who come from non-traditional backgrounds are given a fair chance to demonstrate their skills, and their potential.
  4. It leads to better job performance. Hiring candidates based on their skills and abilities will lead to better job performance because the focus has now been narrowed to just those candidates with the specific skills and experience required for the job.

Overall, skills-first hiring is a fair and more effective approach to hiring than traditional methods, and it can lead to better outcomes for both employers and job seekers. Fortunately, there are ways to assess for skills, and for the aptitudes and other characteristics necessary for success on the job:

  1. Define what a person needs for success in the position. Job tasks, essential skills, performance expectations, the nature of the culture and the requirements to grow beyond the job should be made clear and explicit.
  2. Once the success factors have been identified, structured interviews, work samples, personality inventories and problem-solving assessments are proven methods to measure them. These tools will focus your selection efforts on the essential skills and qualities needed on the job, and will increase your hiring success rate.
  3. Recruit widely and consider alternative sources. Develop relationships with educational and other developmental facilities that may not have been immediately obvious from traditional approaches.

As business psychologists and broadly experienced organizational consultants, we have the training and seasoning to help define the success factors for any job, and to help you determine how to measure them in a fair, valid and defensible manner. Get in touch with us for a no-cost exploratory professional consultation.