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Skills-first approach: what it is and why it can help you

The workplace is changing — fast. What we thought we knew about hiring and talent management is getting a serious makeover, making room for a fresher, sharper approach: skills-first.

Alexandros Pantelakis
Alexandros Pantelakis

HR content specialist at Workable, delivering in-depth, data-driven articles to offer insights into industry and tech trends.

It’s out with the old and in with the new, as this strategy takes center stage, promising a more inclusive, vibrant, and streamlined way of doing things. 

This piece is your deep dive into the skills-first universe—what it’s all about, how it stands to shake things up, and why it’s more than just a trend. 

It’s the roadmap for HR professionals who are ready to ride the wave of change and set foot in a new and undiscovered environment of skills-based hiring

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What is a skills-first approach?

The essence of a skills-first approach is succinctly captured by Careerplug’s perspective, which emphasizes the recognition of transferable skills across different roles and industries. 

It acknowledges that a candidate’s diverse experiences and proven track record as an effective employee are as significant as their formal qualifications. 

This paradigm shift towards valuing skills over traditional credentials such as degrees or job titles is reshaping the hiring landscape, fostering a more flexible and inclusive workforce.

The LinkedIn Skills-First Report further illuminates this concept, presenting it as a strategy that not only benefits individuals by democratizing access to opportunities but also offers organizations a robust framework for building resilient workforces. 

By prioritizing skills, companies can tap into broader, more diverse talent pools, enhancing innovation and competitiveness. 

The report’s findings suggest that adopting a skills-first approach allows for a more equitable hiring process, breaking down barriers that have historically hindered underrepresented groups from accessing employment opportunities.

For instance, when it comes to occupations where women are not well-represented, adopting a skills-first approach to hiring can result in a 24% higher increase in the number of women in candidate pools compared to men. 

Also, skills-first hiring globally leads to a 9% increase in the candidate pools of workers without bachelor’s degrees compared to those with degrees. 

The skills-first framework for action

At the heart of this transformative approach is the Skills-First Framework for Action, as outlined by the World Economic Forum

This framework champions the prioritization of skills themselves over the traditional focus on how these skills were acquired. 

Such a focus has the potential to democratize access to economic opportunities, creating pathways to employment that were previously obscured by conventional hiring practices. 

The framework calls for a collective effort from businesses, governments, and educational institutions to foster a skills-driven economy. 

This collaborative action is pivotal in developing a highly skilled and inclusive workforce equipped to navigate the complexities of the modern job market.

Key components of the framework include actionable strategies for identifying and nurturing talent based on skill proficiency, rather than educational background or work history. 

It advocates for the development of skills inventories and the use of skill-based assessments in hiring and promotion decisions. 

By doing so, it lays the groundwork for a more adaptable and forward-thinking workforce, capable of meeting the demands of a rapidly changing world.

The skills-first economy

A skills-first economy is one where the primary currency is not the degrees or certificates that individuals hold but the skills they possess and can apply in various contexts. 

Remember the type typesetters? The profession of a typesetter, once pivotal in the printing industry for arranging text and layout, largely vanished with the advent of digital publishing. 

However, the meticulous skills of typesetters in typography, design, and attention to detail found new relevance in graphic design, web design, and digital publishing. 

Their expertise in visual aesthetics and layout seamlessly transitioned into these modern domains, showcasing the power of transferable skills amidst technological evolution.

Same with shoemakers. Shoemakers, once central figures in every town, crafting custom footwear for every foot, have seen their traditional role evolve with industrialization and mass production. 

However, the artisan skills of shoemakers—ranging from leatherworking, stitching, and understanding foot anatomy to an eye for fashion and durability—remain in demand within niche markets and high-end fashion. 

Today, their expertise is not only preserved but revered in bespoke shoemaking, repair services, and in the design departments of luxury footwear brands, proving that the meticulous craftsmanship and personalized touch of a shoemaker still hold significant value in an era of ubiquitous factory-produced shoes.

This shift represents a fundamental change in how value is assigned within the labor market, with far-reaching implications for economic growth, innovation, and social equity.

Benefits of a skills-first approach

The transition towards a skills-first approach in hiring and talent management carries significant advantages for both employers and employees. 

The insights from LinkedIn and additional research underscore several key benefits that underscore the value of this strategy for HR professionals:

1. Expanded talent pools

By focusing on skills rather than degrees or job titles, organizations can access a wider array of candidates. 

This expansion is not just in numbers but in diversity, including historically underrepresented groups, individuals without traditional degrees, and those from varied industry backgrounds. 

The WEF report suggests that adopting a skills-first approach can add up to 20x more eligible workers to employer talent pools.

2. Increased diversity and inclusion

A skills-first model inherently supports more equitable hiring practices. It allows companies to move beyond biases associated with educational pedigree or industry experience, thus leveling the playing field. 

In particular, it can significantly increase the representation of women in roles where they are underrepresented, fostering a more diverse and inclusive workplace culture.

3. Adaptability and resilience

In an era where the nature of work is constantly evolving, a workforce selected for its skills is better equipped to adapt to new challenges and technologies. 

Companies can more easily pivot in response to industry trends and demands, ensuring their workforce remains competitive and productive.

Challenges and considerations

While the benefits of a skills-first approach are compelling, HR professionals must also navigate its challenges and considerations to implement it successfully:

Identifying and assessing skills

Transitioning to a skills-first model requires robust mechanisms to accurately identify, assess, and validate the skills of candidates. This can involve developing new assessment tools and training hiring managers to evaluate skills effectively.

Upskilling and reskilling

To fully leverage a skills-first approach, organizations must commit to the continuous development of their workforce. 

This means investing in upskilling and reskilling programs that enable employees to acquire new competencies and adapt to changing job requirements.

According to the WEF, companies that excel at internal mobility retain employees for an average of 5.4 years, nearly 2x as long as companies that struggle with it (2.9 years).

Cultural shift

Adopting a skills-first approach entails a significant cultural shift within organizations. It challenges traditional notions of career progression and success, requiring buy-in from all levels of the organization to foster a culture that values skills and learning.

Implementing a skills-first strategy

For HR professionals looking to embrace a skills-first approach, a strategic implementation plan is essential. Here are steps to consider in rolling out this transformative strategy:

1. Develop a skills framework

Begin by defining the specific skills and competencies that are critical for success in your organization. This framework should be dynamic, reflecting the evolving nature of your industry and business needs.

2. Revise hiring practices

Update job descriptions, recruitment materials, and interview processes to focus on skills. Incorporate skills assessments into the hiring process to evaluate candidates objectively based on their capabilities.

3. Invest in learning and development

Build a robust learning and development ecosystem that supports the ongoing growth of employees’ skills. This includes formal training programs, mentorship, and opportunities for on-the-job learning.

4. Foster a skills-first culture

Encourage a workplace culture that values continuous learning and skill development. Recognize and reward skill acquisition and application, and ensure that career advancement opportunities are tied to skill progression.

5. Leverage technology

Utilize HR technology platforms, like Workable, that can support a skills-first approach, from skill assessment tools to learning management systems that track skill development and alignment with business needs.

As organizations worldwide embrace this approach, the potential for innovation, growth, and inclusivity in the workplace is boundless. The future of work is skills-first, and the time to prepare for that future is now.

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