Skills First Hiring Image May 2024

If you’re looking for any hiring trends other than AI-related information, Skills-First Hiring may top the list. There have been numerous companies adjusting job qualifications to adopt this strategy. So, what exactly is Skills-First Hiring and, if companies focus on only the skills needed for a specific role, does this mark the end of hiring university talent (with a degree in hand but usually little practical experience)?

Skills-first hiring is a simple concept. It is hiring focused on a candidate’s demonstrable abilities to perform the job, rather than relying solely on traditional markers like a four-year degree. Instead of filtering applicants based on educational background, skills-first hiring emphasizes a candidate’s ability to:

  • Perform specific tasks relevant to the job description.
  • Demonstrate problem-solving skills and a willingness to learn.
  • Possess the necessary soft skills like communication, teamwork, and adaptability.

This is a benefit to companies as it expands the talent pool and very well may lead to more diversity – hiring people with skills developed through broader backgrounds and experiences.

And it looks like a trend that is gathering steam. A recent LinkedIn study found that over 45% of employers in 2023 explicitly used skills data to fill roles, up from just 33% in 2022 and found talent pools expand on average almost ten times when using a skills-first approach [LinkedIn’s Economic Graph Skills First Report]. And research from Deloitte suggests that organizations with a skills-first approach are 98% more likely to retain high performers [source: Using Skills-First Hiring to Build Strong Teams and Grow Your Business, Harvard Business Review (2024)].

This is great news for corporate recruiters and HR teams. Increase talent pools ten times? Good. Higher retention rates? Good! But is this at the expense of hiring new college graduates? Is a college education losing its value in the marketplace? Here are two facts about getting university degrees:

  • A university degree does not prepare future employees for their first job. In fact, Pew Research Center found that only one-third of college graduates said their college experience was extremely useful in developing skills directly applicable to the workplace (Key facts about U.S. college graduates, Pew Research Center)
  • Going to college is very expensive! I didn’t need to do much research about this fact. With three children currently in college, I’m reminded of this every semester.

But, despite the drive to skills-first hiring and the expense and relevance of getting a university degree, there is a place for university hiring in the future. That’s because:

  • There is a large gap between the number of open positions in the US and the number of people who can fill them (some say up to two million more jobs than people!)
  • The evolution of work is always changing, which affects the type of skills needed. Example:  Cybersecurity is a growing area of employment today. So is driverless technology. What if there are thousands of displaced taxi drivers, truckers, and delivery people and thousands of cyber security jobs? How many have the skills to fill them?

This is where universities, trade schools, and other learning centers can play a role. But, as the statistics above show, there is a gap in what universities are teaching and what skills companies need. To keep learning institutions relevant, changes need to be made:

  • Universities might need to adapt their curriculums to ensure graduates have the specific skills employers are looking for. This specifically means going beyond theoretical knowledge and incorporating practical training, industry certifications, etc.
  • Learning centers must develop non-traditional programs focused on in-demand skills as well as critical soft skills (problem-solving, leadership, communication, etc.). Mini courses, bootcamps, and micro-credentials catering to college students and working professionals alike seeking to upskill/reskill depending on the talent needs of the marketplace.
  • Universities need to better partner with companies to understand their skills needs and they need faster turnaround time to create relevant learning modules for those skills. We see this currently with collaborations in co-developed programs, internships, and co-operative education experiences, etc. but the system needs advanced/overhauled to better serve corporations with skill gaps.

There is a tremendous opportunity for the skills-first agenda to be a win-win for employers and colleges alike. Universities that embrace a new way of educating can become even more valuable resources, preparing graduates not just for a degree, but for a successful and fulfilling career.

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Author – Eddie Stewart, Founder, ES Talent Solutions

Eddie Stewart has over 20 years of recruiting experience, working in both large and small corporate environments. He currently owns and operates ES Talent Solutions, a consulting firm focused on strategic recruiting consulting. Need help identifying what needs to be fixed or want an outside view of the health of your recruiting function? Contact Eddie ( at ES Talent Solutions to learn more about corporate recruiting assessments and how they may improve your organization.