In recent years, much has been made of soft skills, or transferable skills, that allow workers to succeed in a variety of roles. As skills gaps widen and the demand for various skills changes, however, both workers and employers can benefit from a focus not only on transferable skills, but also on skills related to a worker’s core career focus.
The latter, known as adjacent skills, include both transferable and technical skills. Developed effectively, these skills can help workers adapt to the fast-paced change that characterizes today’s business world.
Defining “Adjacent Skills”
In 2017, researchers at McKinsey predicted that up to 14 percent of the global workforce, or 375 million workers, may require new skill sets by 2030, as automation and other advances make their existing skill sets obsolete.
“The changes in net occupational growth or decline imply that a very large number of people may need to shift occupational categories and learn new skills in the years ahead,” write James Manyika and fellow researchers at McKinsey. They predict that a change in the labor force on the scale of the Industrial Revolution is on its way, with corresponding impacts on workers and on demand for certain skills.
How will these workers transition into the roles that await them in the future? The answer lies in developing adjacent skills.
Adjacent skills are skills related to a skill or competency a worker already has. Often, they’re skills that are not targeted in job descriptions or in job-related education, but that play an essential role in enhancing a worker’s ability to fully understand their role and perform it more effectively.
Developing adjacent skills has become a way of life for some professionals, especially those actively engaged in making themselves indispensable to their employers. These workers “strengthen their knowledge of a secondary field, more often related to their core expertise or current industry,” writes Nilesh Gaikwad, country manager, India, at EDHEC Business School.
Common areas into which workers may pursue adjacent skills include technical skills that improve their understanding of their field, digital marketing, data analytics, and communication, writes Gaikwad.
Candidates for reskilling may be found within the organization or hired externally. When seeking to reskill existing team members, “look for workers who have been with the company for at least several years (because they know the organizational culture and overall business) and who also have ‘adjacent skills’ related to the ones you’re looking to develop and fill,” writes Sherman Morrison at New Hire Orientation.
To hire external candidates with an eye toward their adjacent skills, think of jobs in terms of the skills they require, rather than in terms of a job title.
“It’s important to remember that you may be hiring a candidate to fill a role, but roles are essentially a bag of skills. People with the skills necessary to perform a role’s duties may never have held that specific role or a position with that specific title,” says Lindsey Walsh, vice president of product at Gartner.
Lack of a title, however, does not equate to lack of skill. Nor does it equate to a lack of ability to develop a necessary skill by leveraging an already-developed adjacent skill.
Their Value in the Workforce
When it comes to reskilling, many people think of the most extreme examples of transitioning from one skill set to another. “We think about coal miners becoming coders or Elon Musk going from payment processing to space travel,” writes Khe Hy, the creator of RadReads.
For most workers, reskilling doesn’t mean a complete change in career. Rather, it means developing skills related to those they already have. Examples Hy gives include technical salespeople working on their writing skills or a financial analyst better understanding Python scripts.
As adjacent skills are developed, one skill may lead to another. Someone who knows Python, for instance, can more easily learn TensorFlow in order to improve their work with machine learning, or learn Django if they’re needed for front-end work, writes Tom Winter, cofounder and chief revenue officer at DevSkiller.
Developing adjacent skills allows workers to perform their current roles more effectively, and it also prepares them to accept promotions, make lateral moves within the same organization, or adapt to changes in the way their current job is done. Over time, a worker’s career may move in directions that no one anticipated or expected at the start — but that end up being precisely the direction the worker and company need in order to thrive.
Companies aren’t new to skills gaps. Rapid advances in technology have been causing such gaps for some time. Now, however, skills gaps are becoming common in non-technical areas, and they’re having a significant impact on organizations’ ability to manage fast-paced change and uncertainty, says Leah Johnson, vice president, advisory, at Gartner.
Business leaders see what’s coming. In a Gartner survey of 404 human resources leaders worldwide, 66 percent of CHROs and 86 percent of HR technology leaders said that addressing skills gaps and expanding employees’ skill sets were top priorities for 2020.
As the pandemic continues to create uncertainties, a focus on employee skill sets may become more valuable than ever.
How to Hire for Adjacent Skills
Most companies understand that the pace of global change drives a constant demand for updated and expanded skill sets. Understanding what’s changing in the workforce, however, doesn’t automatically arm companies with the knowledge of how to respond.
Hiring is one of the popular ways for companies to address skills gaps. About 66 percent of companies that faced a skills gap in the past five years resolved it by making a new hire, according to McKinsey researchers Sapana Agrawal, Aaron De Smet, Pawel Poplawski, and Angelika Reich.
Hiring managers and human resources professionals might have once gone directly to the source, asking team leaders or front-line workers what skills were needed on the job. Today, however, relying solely on the view of the skills needed today is likely to cause skills gaps to persist in the long run.
Instead, “you need a data-driven approach to understand evolving industry and competitive skill sets, skill profiles, and shifting workforce dynamics — especially given limited budgets for recruiting and training,” says Scott Engler, vice president, advisory, Gartner.
By leveraging available data, companies can better identify which skills are over- or underrepresented in its teams and within the organization as a whole. Data-driven approaches can also identify adjacent skills that fit employees for cross-training into new positions, writes Amy Schultz, senior director of product recruiting at LinkedIn.
People analytics, or using data to better understand the workforce, is already among the top trends for businesses, according to LinkedIn’s Global Talent Trends 2020 report. In response to LinkedIn’s survey research, 85 percent of talent professionals said that people analytics are a top trend.
Using people analytics to identify skills gaps, assessing talent supply and demand, and predicting candidates’ success on the job is already taking place at some organizations. Over the next five years, all of these uses of data are expected to increase.
Using data to better understand skill profiles and patterns can help managers and HR leadership better leverage their team members’ adjacent skills. By understanding how skills relate, leaders can find, train, and retain better talent.
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