I’ve talked to a lot of managers over the years who lament at the “skills-gap.” They claim they’re just not able to find the qualified candidates they need to fill their jobs.
There is no single reason for this problem. Part of the problem is that employers are looking for some skills, like critical thinking and reasoning, problem solving abilities, and creativity that decades ago were a standard part of a liberal arts education. Today, students eschew liberal arts in favour of professional degrees while universities are more interested in becoming paper mills and maximizing tuition revenue instead of providing an educational foundation for lifelong learning.
But a significant part of the problem rests with employers themselves. What does the average job today posting look like? A typical example might look like this:
- Compile project charters and business/project plans to support activities, including the most suitable approach to be used in the development of each applicable project, to ensure business objectives and data integrity are achieved.
- Assist with the development of recommendations including providing details of resource requirements, dependencies, interdependencies, policy implications pertaining to internal/external influences and the methodology to be applied.
- 10 years Experience in a project management role
- 7 years Experience leading a portfolio of projects or initiatives at one time
In reading this, I see am employer who wants bodies rather than talent. It’s not that hard to “compile project charters” or develop “recommendations”. It’s also easy to accumulate 10 years of experience in a project management role without every stretching yourself. Finally, it’s easy for a HR consultant to check off these experience requirements in the first step of shortlisting applicants without diving in depth into each resume.
But what is the result of such a process? Good candidates will be lumped in with those who are just “marking time.” We will get older candidates who are likely in their 40s (since they have a degree and at least 10 years of experience) but we won’t be guaranteed to get anyone with creativity, passion, or critical thinking or problem solving skills. Because the posting asks for quantity and not quality, we’re also inviting applicants to pre-screen themselves accordingly.
Instead of focusing on the essence of the employee, what if we try to explain the context of our workplace and the role we need them to perform and invite them to describe how they have been successful in the past and what they need to succeed now.
Lou Adler founded a HR consulting company based on exactly this principle. Instead of describing the person we want, let’s describe the job we want done. Chances are we don’t want someone with “good communication skills”; we want someone who can “communicate with stakeholders to identify stakeholder concerns, and find ways to address those concerns within the project’s overall scope and budget.” In using this language, people who can write properly cited academic papers or press releases might have “good communication skills”, but may not be able to provide the performance we’re looking for and should be discouraged from wasting both of our time.
In the same way, putting quantities around experience instead of accomplishments discourages high-achievers from applying. Do we really want people who have spent ten years serving “in a project management role,” or are we really hoping for someone who has managed projects valued at more than a million dollars and delivered those projects on-time and within budget while being well-regarded by their client, the members of their project team, and other stakeholders?
If we really want to reduce the “skills-gap” in our hiring, then—to paraphrase the proverb—we have to be careful what we ask for or else we might get it.