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Author's profile photo Christopher Koch

Why Companies Must Hire for Potential, Not Skills

/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/275631_l_srgb_s_gl_399247.jpgOne of my former bosses said she literally fished my cover letter and resume out of the trash. Frustrated that HR wasn’t sending her the right people for a writing job, she demanded that they turn over the submissions that they had already discarded.

The problem wasn’t that HR was sending her unqualified candidates; it was that those qualifications included a very specific skill: experience writing about computers, which I didn’t have. My former boss was flooded with letters from technical writers and Marcom people from computer companies who knew something about technology but didn’t have the ability to write the journalistic-style materials she was publishing. She knew that a writer with journalism experience could learn about computers, but a computer expert who couldn’t write the materials she wanted would not work out.

Where’s the Flexibility?

Today, the kind of flexibility that my former boss displayed (or maybe it was just sheer frustration; she did the dumpster dive after an overzealous candidate had dozens of balloons delivered to her tiny office that made it impossible for her to reach her desk one morning) doesn’t seem to be happening.

My former boss helped me learn about the technology industry, yet few companies are addressing such skill shortages with a strategy that makes mentoring, corporate training, or development a core piece of the solution. My colleague Elana Varon recently dug up research from temporary labor company Manpower that said that when asked to choose among a variety of hiring and training practices they used to address skills shortages, only 23 percent said they provided additional training and development to existing staff. A mere 7 percent redefined job criteria in order to hire people who weren’t completely qualified, but who were able to learn the necessary skills. (No dumpster diving going on there).

Companies Can’t Always Get What They Need Off the Street

Yet hiring malleable employees and investing in training to bring them up to speed and keep their skills current is going to become more necessary over time. Here are two reasons why:

  • Schools can’t keep up. It’s unrealistic for companies to assume academia will keep pace with their specific, and at times unique, needs. “We cannot expect universities, or high schools, or vocational education systems to turn out people who exactly fit the job,” says Markus Schwarz, global head of SAP Education. “We can expect those institutions to provide the baseline education, some foundation of knowledge, but that’s about it.”
  • Workers will walk if you don’t help them learn. Employees demand more than a paycheck to keep them engaged. In a study by Deloitte, lack of career progress topped the list of reasons why people leave their jobs. Meanwhile, a survey by PwC of millennials found 81 percent either actively looking for a new job or open to offers. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of respondents to the PwC survey said they choose their jobs based on opportunities for personal development.

My job worked out because my former boss gave me the opportunity to learn about an industry that was taking off. It meant more than a paycheck; indeed, the tech industry became my second home. I discovered that I loved the constant change and the people. I left journalism but I never left technology.

Have you been given the opportunity to learn and grow in your company or created that environment yourself like my former boss? Please tell me about it.

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