Skills vs. Experience: Successfully Hiring For The Future

Let’s have a serious talk about skills

Anyone who reads articles, blogs or literature about career advice or job searching will hear a repeated focus on the benefit of your personal/soft skills related to employment. Your skills, you will read, are the core value the employer is seeking when hiring, and are something you need to focus on when you are applying.

When employers are searching for an ideal candidate they are looking for a combination of the right personality, soft skills and technical or hard skills. When it comes to valuing these skills,  employment experts agree that while technical skills may get you an interview, it’s the soft skills that will get you the job—and help you keep it.

The all too important soft skills are pieces of your personality that define the kind of worker you are. These include skills like attitude, communication style, thought process, stress management, adaptability and reliability—and this makes a lot of sense.  Someone with excellent database or programming skills isn’t much good if his toxic negativity brings down the entire team or if he crumbles under the slightest pressure.

While hard skills may get your foot in the door, soft skills will keep you there. The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) conducted a study on 260 employers (including Chevron and IBM, according to Forbes) and found the following five soft skills to be the most valuable in employees, in order of importance:

  1. Ability to work in a team structure
  2. Ability to make decisions and solve problems
  3. Ability to communicate verbally with people inside and outside an organization
  4. Ability to plan, organize, and prioritize work
  5. Ability to obtain and process information

Your soft skills are essential in the first few months of the job, while you are still learning the technical side of your new role. In fact, according to Mark Murphy (author of Hire for Attitude), 46% of new hires fail in the first eighteen months, and of those new hires, 89% fail for reasons associated with attitude, one of the critical soft skills!

So, the case is made by employment and career experts for why employers should be really excited about your employment soft skills that you bring from your past experiences to their workplace. The only problem is that the people who aren’t really getting that message tend to be the employers.

It comes down to risk

Employers—well, most employers anyways— are not heavily weighing employment soft skills in their hiring practices. This fact is all too well known by Millennials. The problem with skills is that they are less tangible and more risky than experience. So when push comes to shove and employers have to choose someone to trust with their position and their business, they might want to roll the dice and hire the person who has less experience but a lot of skills and potential. However, most of the time employers decide to play it safe and hire the person with more experience. But should we really blame them?

Skills are about potential, which is fine, but potential is realized down the line and employers are hiring someone for right now. This is a classic investment concern. Do I invest my resources in something that is less proven but has the real potential to have a high rate of return, or something that has a long history of consistent performance?

This is why employers often care more about your experience than your skills or why employers hire the most experienced candidates over the less experienced, but likely more skilled, ones. They just don’t want to take the risk.

Some of that risk centers on questions like:

“If I invest in this person’s potential and it pays off, what if they won’t stay with my company?”

  • Well, if you’re questioning the commitment of a younger worker, according to INC: 64% of Millennials would rather make $40K a year at a job they love than $100K a year at a job they think is boring. And nearly 80% of Millennials consider as a top priority, how they will fit with the people and the culture of their targeted job, followed by the career potential of the position.

“If someone isn’t proven in the job, how can I be sure they’ll be able to do the work?”

  • According to Skills Survey’s Three Hard Truths Every Hiring Organization Needs to Learn. “Hard skills are rarely the reason that people fail in your organization.” Most of the time the reasons employees don’t work out are around absence, personality conflicts, and not fitting in. If they have the skills to learn and a strong work ethic, they will be able to do the job, I just might take a little longer.

“If I don’t hire the most experienced people, then how can I make sure I have the best people?”

  • There is some influential research on this subject, including work by Professor Robert Kelley from Carnegie Mellon Tepper School of Business that has clearly demonstrated that technical skills alone do not distinguish standout employees. Competencies such as initiative and business awareness, as well as skills in leadership, collaboration, communication and presenting are the indicators of your key employees.

Who the Person Is vs. What the Person Was

As an employer, it’s important to remember that you are hiring a person, not just a collection of experiences. There is more to the job than doing the tasks that you are hiring someone to do. Employment soft skills are where the person will succeed in those other essential, but less tangible areas such as reliability, innovation, creativity, and dedication. Experience can be gained, taught and crafted. It is much harder to mold who the person is because individual identity is much more entrenched. We’ve all seen how a single toxic person can damage staff morale, customer relations and the profit margins of businesses. We’ve also seen how a hardworking, morale-building, approachable and dependable employee can become the person everyone turns to for help and makes the business a better place to work. According to Talent Acquisition Factbook 2015, it costs $4,000 to replace an employee. That is not including the loss of productivity, morale and knowledge base that leaves when employees do. This makes it organizationally and financially essential to choose the right person when hiring. When you hire for experience you’re hiring someone’s past, which might be all they can give you. When you hire someone’s skills, you are hiring their future, which is really what they are looking to give you.

How do I show them I fit?

Here is the reality facing job seekers:  despite the overwhelming research demonstrating that employment soft skills are the core, essential, standout qualifications for almost any job, employers remain shy about focusing on them when filling vacancies. So what do you do?

You need to focus on your fit. Research the needs and the cultural atmosphere of the company to which you’re applying, then really show them who you are by showing them all of the technical and employment soft skills that you possess.  You can’t control the thoughts and fears of the employer, but you can make a compelling and engaging case for why you are worth the risk. If you want some tips on how to do that, check out one of my past articles titled: A Successful Job Search is Simply about Telling a Good Story.

The Takeaway

Employment soft skills should be something that excites us all. Job seekers should be keen to share them and employers should be eager to hear about them. But the risk and fear of the “unproven” is what is holding us all back. The research proves time and again that the reward far outweighs the risk. I think it’s time for all of us to stop playing it “safe” and start being focused on people’s future and not just their past.


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