September 28, 2021

Address Pandemic Hiring Volatility by Focusing on Skills and Capabilities

Recent news stories have been focused on the challenges of filling unskilled and low-skilled positions. Difficulty hiring for positions traditionally seen as unskilled, like restaurant service, has prompted some businesses and legislators to claim a labor shortage exists and that steps should be taken to address it.

Other businesses acknowledge that the number of job-seekers versus available jobs isn’t the issue, but a skills mismatch between job seekers and available jobs is the problem. “You can’t train a one-time courier on a bike to become an IT specialist overnight,” says Bernard Baumohl, chief global economist at The Economic Outlook Group. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way companies in every industry face hiring. Yet, as a rule, shortage of people or skills are not the problem. Rather, the challenge lies in reconsidering how to measure and match workers’ skills to organizational needs.

COVID-19 and Its Impact on Hiring

Many U.S. employers are experiencing new challenges in hiring, and their experience is borne out by data. A U.S. Chamber of Commerce report, for example, notes that “there are approximately half as many available workers for every open job (1.4 available workers/opening) across the country as there have been on average over the past 20 years (2.8 historical average).” Several industries, like education and health services, have fewer workers than the number of jobs available. 

The numbers help shed light on the reason two stories about the pandemic recovery have emerged simultaneously. One story focuses on the millions of unemployed workers looking for jobs; the other focuses on companies that claim they cannot find the people they need. Stories explaining the mismatch find a number of culprits to blame, from unemployment benefits to lack of worker skills.

“A skills mismatch between the workers who need jobs and the job openings isn’t unusual. But many of today’s available jobs don’t require advanced education,” notes Patrick Watson, partner senior economic analyst at Mauldin Economics. 

Finding workers with the necessary skills does pose a challenge. That challenge, however, is magnified by the ways in which employers continue to cling to outdated notions of what constitutes a necessary job skill and how to match skills to roles. 

Funny family legs in mismatched socks; hire for skills concept

To Hire for Skills, Rethink Skills

Current conversations about workers’ skills versus available jobs often focus on the lack of digital and technology-related skills, especially for workers in what are traditionally seen as unskilled or low-skilled work. 

Even before the pandemic, some employers had begun to feel pressure to find workers with the skills required to engage with digital tools and equipment. Then COVID-19 shutdowns sped up the pace at which companies relied on digital communication, automation, and similar tools.

“What was expected to happen over the next 10 to 20 years has, instead, happened in just a few months,” notes Art Bilger, founder and CEO at WorkingNation. 

The quick switch to digital has left many companies scrambling for workers — and blaming skills gaps for their trouble. In a March 2021 op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Laura Tyson and Susan Lund write that a sustainable post-pandemic recovery will require numerous unskilled workers to be moved to positions that require more skills and training. In many cases, the training companies implement will include training in digital and technological skills.

Companies’ willingness to add training and partner with educational institutions to train workers is heartening, but it relies on an outdated model of workers, their skills, and the roles they fill. 

When it comes to digital skills, for example, employers often assume that a worker who formerly unloaded trucks or delivered meals has no digital skills that translate to tasks like office work or running heavy machinery. Yet workers are also humans, and the COVID-19 pandemic pushed them toward using computers and smartphones to tackle a number of complex tasks, from attending doctor’s appointments to reporting to unemployment.

Skills gained in the switch to digital in workers’ personal lives can often be transferred to a work environment. Employers who don’t consider worker skills more broadly cannot hope to tap into these existing skill sets when hiring. Instead, they are likely to pass over qualified candidates and waste money on redundant training programs for skills workers already have.

A renewed approach to skills-based hiring can help employers build a more diverse and inclusive workforce, as well. Low-wage workers are disproportionately members of minority groups, more likely to be women, people of color, or both. Because of this they are more likely to be disproportionately undermined in a recession or other upheaval, write Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, Rodrigo Dominguez-Villegas and Eric Hoyt at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Center for Employment Equity. 

Low-wage workers are often thought of as low-skilled workers as well. Consequently, they may also be overlooked by companies clinging to outdated ideas about what constitutes a skill set for employment purposes. 

Focusing narrowly on skills “ignores social dynamics such as race, class, age, and gender bias in the hiring process,” depriving many workers of a chance for meaningful engagement with jobs they are in fact qualified to do, write Annelies Goger and Luther Jackson at the Brookings Institute.

A black wrecking ball hanging inside the opening in a concrete wall showing city landscape; hire for skills concept

Revealing the Skills Your Team Needs Today

Conceptualizing workers as people who build and use skills throughout their daily lives is only the first step to more effective hiring. In order to fully benefit from a skills-based approach to hiring, companies also need to think of their own teams as being comprised of skill sets rather than discrete roles.

Begin by re-assessing which skills are actually used on a daily basis by your existing team. For example, the pandemic pushed many workers to acquire a new set of digital skills related to communication, like writing and video conferencing. “[Eight-four percent] of employers have accelerated their digital transformations including a significant expansion of remote work,” writes Sonia Malik at IBM. For many employers, these rapid changes also mean existing job descriptions are outdated.

Next, consider which skills required for each job are technical, job-specific skills, and which are transferable skills that may be learned in a variety of contexts. Use available software and other tools to understand which jobs and life paths also emphasize the transferable skills each role requires. This broader view allows hiring managers and HR teams to look beyond former job titles to the capabilities developed throughout a worker’s lifespan. 

Another way to cultivate a broader view is to step outside demands for degrees or certifications. “Employers looking to build, or rebuild, the skill-base of their workforce will find they have more options if they look beyond traditional education credentials and experience requirements,” write Michael Burt and Bryan Gormley at The Conference Board of Canada. 

Companies that require certain college degrees or credentials automatically exclude qualified candidates from consideration. “Instead of ‘screening out’ by pedigree, smart employers are increasingly ‘screening-in’ talent for performance and potential,” says Byron Auguste, cofounder and CEO at Opportunity@Work. By focusing on workers’ capabilities, companies build a broader pool of diverse, qualified candidates. These employers avail themselves of the skills and abilities candidates have learned during the pandemic, even if the candidates’ traditional path toward a college degree or a promotion was disrupted. 

The pandemic caused rapid, widespread social upheaval. It forced many people to develop new skills in communication, problem-solving, flexibility, and adaptability. Insofar as these skills support success in any role, they can be found in a wide range of available candidates, regardless of where the candidate learned them. 

Calling current hiring hurdles a labor shortage issue, or blaming them on lack of worker skills, misrepresents the nature of the challenge companies face. Thinking of workers in terms of their specific training for specific roles is no longer an option. Instead, companies that build sustainable growth out of the pandemic will do so by thinking about skills in a broader manner. 

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