Kasey LynchFebruary 28, 2024
Topics: Talent Experience

Beyond Degrees: Inside the Rise of Skills-Based Talent Acquisition

The concept of "tearing down the paper ceiling" symbolizes a paradigm shift toward skills-based talent acquisition, challenging traditional hiring practices reliant on degrees. 

The focus on abilities over credentials is slowly but surely reshaping recruitment strategies, and skills-first organizations benefit through agility, longevity, and accuracy in matching talent with roles.

On this episode of Talent Experience Live, Mike DeMarco, Product Marketing Manager at Phenom, shared his perspective on ensuring the right fit beyond resumes. How can a skills-first methodology enable organizations to leverage internal talent, address talent shortages, and enhance candidate selection with new KPIs?

Keep reading to catch the Q&A highlights, or watch the full episode below. 

How has the skills-based movement personally inspired you?

Inspired by Phenom’s interview with Vice President of Talent Acquisition and Onboarding at Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), Lavonne Monroe, who shared her story of navigating her career successfully without a college degree, DeMarco recently took his own deep dive into skills

As a new Phenom employee, DeMarco has been doing his research to investigate emerging trends across various industries. “I related so closely to her story,” he said. “Having the opportunity to dive in, to study it, to learn it, to see the industry trends and where people are going with it was really exciting to me.”

What’s happening to the paper ceiling?

The paper ceiling — a term used to describe barriers that workers without a college degree encounter — is already being torn down at a lot of organizations, with over considering removing the degree requirement for entry-level roles. 

“In the last couple of years, it’s really picked up steam with people championing skills and thinking about how to re-evaluate a person’s worth, value, and employment experience in order to leverage that within an organization,” DeMarco said. 

Removing the requirement for a college degree not only opens the door to more candidates, it also gives people with long tenure but no degree the opportunity to advance within the organization. 

When are degrees or certifications necessary?

Of course, for some careers, a degree will always be necessary, DeMarco acknowledged. For example, I think it’s safe to say, “I want my doctor to go to med school.” Meanwhile, other positions will always require certifications to verify skills (e.g., truck drivers). 

Certifications offer a way to build and validate skills for a significantly lower commitment of time and money. And while obtaining a college degree shows initiative and follow-through, those traits can be demonstrated within the workforce, too, DeMarco said.

How does a skills-based approach help talent acquisition teams?

Organizations that require a college degree for employment are potentially eliminating a majority of American adults, research shows. According to Robert Half,

“Companies can start to think about approaching candidates differently,” DeMarco said, considering other indicators that signal a good hire, such as employment tenure and certifications earned.

How does technology help organizations adopt a skills-forward approach?

Establishing a , though not a requirement for becoming a skills-forward organization, is an important goal. A skills ontology maps out skills and how they’re related within the context of an organization’s business structure. 

Having technology in place significantly streamlines the initial effort and ensures ongoing reliability of a skills ontology, DeMarco noted. 

“More than ever, organizations are going to have to invest in tools to maintain these skills ontologies. You’re going to need tools like AI and automation to help you get a full scope of what you have going on in your organization.”

A platform powered by a robust skills ontology not only tracks skills currently available, but it can also layer in context regarding employees’ career aspirations and skills in development — and present that unified data to everyone in the talent ecosystem: Talent Acquisition, Talent Management, and leaders.  

“If you keep all that information in silos, it’s not going to be trackable and it’s not going to be beneficial. I would say to organizations, start looking at your data and find ways that you can organize and leverage it,” DeMarco said.

How does skills-based hiring benefit talent stakeholders?

Hiring based on skills — especially when supported by technology — offers several advantages: 

  • More accurate candidate selection. “It helps talent acquisition teams be able to go after talent with laser precision,” DeMarco said. 

  • Better interviewing experience. With greater insight into skills needed, hiring teams can have more productive conversations and ask targeted interview questions, DeMarco noted. “It creates better experiences across the whole interview process.”

  • Decreased time to hire. Improved candidate selection and interviewing processes whittle down time to hire.

  • Better hiring insight for managers. “It helps managers know who they’re qualifying and be able to hire for the skills that they actually need to provide the job functions — not dance around tertiary requirements,” DeMarco added.

  • Career pathing insight for job candidates and employees. With visibility into skill requirements, candidates know how they need to improve and what skills to add to reach their goals.

What are the cost-effective benefits of hiring for skills?

With a clearer picture of skills available in-house, TA and HR teams can better understand whether hiring internally is a viable option to fill open roles. “It’s commonly known that it’s better to hire within than to go look outside — it’s always going to cost you more time, more money, more effort,” DeMarco pointed out. 

Working within the context of skills, employee preferences, and aspirations allows TA teams to take a strategic approach to internal mobility that can increase employee satisfaction and even reduce churn. 

“This really is an opportunity where both sides of the coin are going to win,” DeMarco said. “Candidates are going to feel empowered and leverage their ability…organizations are going to save time and save costs on churn by hiring the right-fit candidate.”

How can organizations “hire the human” — and how will AI help?

Resumes, education level, cover letters, legacy evaluation forms, and the list goes on. As DeMarco pointed out, these traditional methods of candidate assessment miss a critical element: character. “Who are you? What’s it like to work with you? Are you going to show up on time? Do you finish your projects?” 

Determining these traits requires meeting people, having one-on-one conversations, and assessing their willingness to learn and grow.

With AI functioning as a co-pilot to take over manual tasks for many job roles, these soft skills will become even more valuable, DeMarco predicted. “I think soft skills are going to continue to rise [in level of importance] as things that employers are going to start qualifying.”

How can job candidates take a skills-based approach? 

Candidates and employees can lean into skills in a couple of ways:

  • Network. Reach out and make connections. DeMarco offers this challenge: Every week, connect with 10 new people in areas you want to focus on.

  • Highlight efforts to expand skill sets. Enroll in certification courses and get involved in current projects to acquire new skill sets in a hands-on way. 

How can organizations get started with skills-based hiring? 

Again, becoming a skills-forward organization doesn’t require technology first. Instead, DeMarco encourages a mindset shift: 

  • Consider promoting long-tenured employees who may not have a degree, but who have shown they’re ready to move up 

  • Include certifications as valid criteria for assessing skill sets

  • Ask candidates to share examples of projects they’re currently working on

  • Create cross-functional gigs for internal employees to fill needs and build skills. “Use your organization as a sandbox,” DeMarco said. 

“Skills are going to be the way that everybody wins. All boats rise with high tide, and this is a great movement.”

With that enthusiasm, how can we not get on board? 

Learn more about how to become a skills-forward organization by streaming our Skills Day event on demand here.

Kasey Lynch

Kasey is a content marketing writer, focused on highlighting the importance of positive experiences. She's passionate about SEO strategy, collaboration, and data analytics. In her free time, she enjoys camping, cooking, exercising, and spending time with her loved ones — including her dog, Rocky. 

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