Adjacent skills: How to find candidates who will thrive in new roles

Adjacent skills are great indicators of how people can succeed in related or different roles. Here’s how to recognize those skills.

Adjacent skills: How to find candidates who will thrive in new roles

As the pace of change accelerates, so must an organization’s ability to adapt. Employees must be resilient, eager to grow, and capable of taking on in-demand roles. To build this resiliency, talent leaders need to connect the dots among people, their adjacent skills, and the organization’s evolving needs. 

So what are adjacent skills, and why are they important? 

Adjacent skills are abilities related to a worker’s current skill set. These skills may not be explicitly mentioned in job requirements, but they can enhance an employee’s ability to understand what they need to learn to improve performance and even move beyond their current roles and perform different tasks as needed. 

These are examples of how adjacent skills can help people advance their careers: 

  • Recruiters can step into talent management roles as external hiring shifts to internal hiring 
  • Software developers with experience in one coding language can easily transfer those adjacent skills to learn another coding language
  • Sales representatives can step into account management roles when economic conditions change
  • Middle managers can grow into leadership roles as the business expands

Adjacent skills are essential to see how workers can succeed in several roles. Here’s how to recognize those skills in anyone.

Build a culture around hiring for skills

Organizations need foundational fluency in skills-based approaches to hiring and talent management before their leaders can identify adjacent skills.

The starting point is to shift from looking at credentials — what someone has done in the past — to their skills and capabilities — what they’re capable of achieving in the future. Skills are a better way to determine whether someone will succeed in a role.

Maurice A. Jones, CEO of OneTen, an organization that promotes careers for Black talent in America, advocates for hiring and promoting based on potential so that organizations can open their doors to skilled, qualified talent. (Ed note: Full disclosure, OneTen is an Eightfold customer.)

“We had a company that showed me a job requisition for a coder it needed to hire,” Jones said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. “Because the job required a bachelor’s degree, I believe my B.A. in political science would have likely given me a better chance of being interviewed than someone who completed an eight-week boot camp in coding. It’s hard to believe, but it’s often the reality.”

Related: In this video, Eightfold AI CEO Ashutosh Garg shares how Eightfold’s philosophy around hiring for potential supports our mission of finding the right career for everyone in the world.

Understand which skills transfer from role to role

It’s hard to screen for “soft” adjacent skills in traditional recruiting and hiring models. For example, a résumé or LinkedIn profile might not capture a person’s ability to set goals or resolve conflicts between coworkers.

Often hiring managers have to intuit which adjacent skills are relevant between one job and another. For example, it’s not difficult to imagine that someone with three years of experience as a community manager in a startup could succeed in an internal communications role. After all, both jobs require the person to get timely information out to a specific audience.

Other jumps are less obvious. In an article for Techradar, Infosys’ Chief Information Security Officer Vishal Salvi, said closing the cybersecurity skill gap requires organizations to identify where gaps exist and which employees have adjacent skills. “Not everyone can be refactored — only those with cybersecurity adjacent skills can qualify.”

With upskilling, someone with a decade of experience in networking, UNIX, Python, Java, or data science might be an excellent candidate for a cybersecurity role.

Develop your skills taxonomy

Here’s how to turn one example into a standardized process.

Take the domain-specific skills of Python, machine learning, and cybersecurity, then give those a broader cognitive skills category under which those all nest. Then do that for every skill of every team member. This is the only way to standardize the way you assess skills and make apples-to-apples comparisons. 

Adjacent skills: How to find candidates who will thrive in new roles

Of course, that’s a herculean amount of work, even for a small company. In an article for The Conference Board, human capital management researcher Marion Devine wrote about a global manufacturing company that tried to manually create a similar skills taxonomy but struggled to maintain the data. 

Devine suggested an alternative approach to building a skills taxonomy — borrow one of the more extensive, open-source skills taxonomies, like the World Economic Forum’s Reskilling Revolution or the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Information Network, O*NET

This data can help any organization map and visualize the relationships between skills and how success in one could be a reliable predictor of success in a new role. Keep in mind that prebuilt taxonomies cannot absorb personalized information about your specific organization or predict how jobs in your industry might change in the next few years.

The limitations of manual processes — and where AI helps

Once you have a framework for cataloging and mapping adjacent skills, you can begin to parse what skills people have on an individual basis.

Traditionally, recruiters and hiring managers have used several ways to discover what soft skills a candidate could bring to a role, including:

  • Pre-employment screening tests
  • Open-ended questions on applications that ask people to list their soft skills
  • Problem-solving tests during the interview stages
  • Watching interviewees for physical or social cues

However, these methods for assessing skills have major weaknesses. For example, self-reported skills aren’t always reliable.

“Whether we like it or not, we all hold unconscious bias,” writes James Elliott, strategy and performance delivery manager at Allianz. “Soft skills are subjective, so what one person thinks is great, another may think is rubbish. It’s hard to overcome this in settings such as interviews, so additional measures need to be put in place.”

Listing everyone’s skills without human bias is impossible to scale without artificial intelligence. Creating a skills taxonomy is a massive undertaking — and manual processes for collecting applicant data can generate more noise than signal.

Adjacent skills: How to find candidates who will thrive in new roles

The only reliable way to identify and make connections with candidates’ adjacent skills is to use deep-learning AI built for that purpose. 

Modern talent intelligence platforms are designed to help organizations hire for potential. That means understanding what domain-specific skills and adjacent skills a person can bring to an organization, then finding the right fits for those people with those skills.

“We have a metric or a scorecard for almost everything we do,” said Brad Cohen, Sr. HRIS Analyst for DICK’S Sporting Goods, in a conversation with Eightfold. “The team took data from several internal systems and loaded it into Eightfold AI, where it interacted with data from the public domain. It scanned billions of profiles to better understand the skills and attributes of different roles and really what contributes to success.”

“You have to have well-built algorithms with a lot of data science behind them,” he continued. “And you need a large set of data so you can train those algorithms.”

To learn more about identifying adjacent skills with an agile approach to talent management, read our new e-book.

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