Hiring for Skills vs Industry Experience

We all want employees who can think outside the square but are we asking the right questions when hiring, to find them?

Hiring for Skills vs Industry Experience


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By Julie O'Sullivan, Recruitment Consultant, Peak Services

Assessing individuals on their demonstrated skills and experience – rather than their last job title  can help fill your next critical role with great talent. 

With COVID-19 sending so many industries into a spin, there is now a pool of candidates looking to dip their toes into something a little different. There are those organisations that have cut their workforce in half (or worse) and then there are those in different sectors that are struggling to bridge the talent pool gap. 

There is a golden opportunity to adopt skills-based hiring techniques and diversify the knowledge and perception of culture fit for your organisation. Most hiring managers realise that although critically important, hiring staff, especially for those challenging to fill roles, can be a time consuming and expensive process.  

It is important to assess applicants against specific criteria, reviewing the said criteria to be agile in the changing environment and applicable to the organisation, not just the sector. 

Recruiting for core skills over experience in a particular sector can be beneficial, for example: 

  • Experience does not always equal quality – candidates who have been working in Industry X can bring rare insights and abilities to the table but so can someone who has only briefly or peripherally worked in Industry X. The reverse can also be true – all candidates, whether they have worked in the industry for one year or 15 years can be poor performers. The longevity of someone’s tenure does not particularly make them the best. 

  • Core skills are transferable – an applicant who has spent their career procuring and managing contracts in a particular industry will be able to bring those core skills to a role in a different industry. On top of technical skills that seem ‘specific’ to some roles there are ‘soft skills’ that are transferable across different sectors and positions within an organisation. How many times have you seen an advertisement or position description that does not mention communication skills? Soft skills  such as communication skills, a willingness to learn, ability to work within a team, to be adaptable – are likely to transfer across to any industry. 

Think outside the box. When an employer is looking for a new hire, they are usually looking for a candidate who will tick several boxes, such as culture fit, soft skills and technical or hard skills. It is often said that your technical skills will get you the interview but it is your soft skills that will get you the job  and help you to keep it. Let’s face it, the best programmer in your team is not going to be making life easy for you if he/she has a toxic, negative work persona that infiltrates the team and causes tension and a lack of resilience. 

This is where the ability to see the transferable skills in a candidate  not only soft skills but technical also  will play to your advantage. That superstar sales representative for a tour company may be the economic development manager who will see you bring much needed businesses to your area, or the event planner who has been responsible for conferences of over 3,000 people might be the perfect person to arrange the community and charity events that are integral to your brand and organisation.  

Whilst hard and technical skills are what get a candidate hired, it will be the soft skills that will determine how successful that hire will be. A study of over 260 employers conducted by the National Association of Employers (NACE) found the following five soft skills to be the most important: 

  1. the ability to work in a team structure
  2. the ability to make decisions and solve problems
  3. the ability to communicate verbally with people inside and external to the organisation 
  4. the ability to plan, organise and prioritise work 
  5. the ability to obtain and process information.

According to Mark Murphy (author of Hire for Attitude), 46 per cent of new hires fail in the first 18 months  and of those new hires, 89 per cent fail for reasons associated with attitude, which is a critical soft skill. 

For a lot of employers it comes down to risk and often skills, especially soft skills, are less tangible than experience and given less weighting in the recruitment process. Skills are about potential; most employers are hiring for right now. So now the debate; do you invest in a resource that is less proven but with the potential for a high rate of return? Or do you go for something with a long history of consistency? 

Sometimes it comes down to what is available in the candidate market. As we all know, different industries have been hit harder by the pandemic, which means there is a glut of talented candidates in the market... but not necessarily in your industry. Think about some of those roles you have struggled to fill. Have you thought about transferable skills when you have been evaluating potential candidates? Have your screening questions given them an opportunity to show how they can bring their skills to your organisation? 

Next time you receive a resume from someone outside your industry, look at what their role entails and what their achievements have been. Do they have the business acumen necessary for big picture thinking that will help in a leadership team and can they obtain and process information necessary to the role they have applied for? 

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