Skills, skills, skills, skills…
If you’ve been around HR tech for two minutes in the last five years, “skills” is basically all you’ve heard. Well, okay, “skills” and “AI.” The HR Tech community is jamming skills down your throat like a new pharmaceutical drug that cures narcissism.
Why do we feel “skills” are so important?
- Hiring by skill is thought to eliminate bias. It’s not about relationships, or what school you went to, or that you went to school at all, or what color your skin is. If you have the skill to do the job, you should be hired to do the job.
- As a concept in organizations, skills seem to connect a lot of dots. We can measure skills and make a giant inventory of all the skills we have, and our all-knowing executive team can tell what skills we need in the future, and we can build those skills to be ready.
In theory, hiring and promoting people based on skill makes a lot of sense. In reality, it’s super hard to pull off. It’s difficult to truly assess someone’s skill in most areas. We just don’t have enough black-and-white skills measures that truly differentiate nor do we have the ability to build all the skills we believe we need.
Does “experience” matter?
The folks on the skills side of the fence want you to believe experience is an outdated concept being sold to you by “the man.” Or, more specifically, by men who have traditionally controlled the world in so many ways. Some of that is also true. But that doesn’t mean that experience doesn’t matter. It does.
You are about to go to prison for a crime you didn’t commit. You can choose between two lawyers. Both passed the bar to demonstrate their “skill” as an attorney. For one, this will be their first case. For the other, it will be their 2,000th case. Who will you choose? You are about to go into a life-saving brain surgery. You have two surgeons to choose from. Both of whom passed their boards at the highest level. One has performed over 1,000 of this specific operation. One has done 50. Which one will you choose?
There is a piece of this skills revolution that also is veiled in ageism. One of the reasons “skills” has risen is that young people are sick of old people getting hired and promoted over them. Old people who might not have the same skill level, but definitely have more experience. We can’t just say stop hiring them because they’re old, but we can say stop hiring them because I have higher “skill.” So, if it’s only about skill, we eliminate the ageism bias.
Your experience actually does matter.
Wait, what about performance?
Here’s where I get a bad feeling in my stomach around “skills.” It’s not just that a person has a certain skill, but how they perform in that skill. The reason we say “experience” doesn’t matter because there are dozens of academic studies that have shown that when we measure new hires and we take a look at their resumes and their previous job experience, there is very little correlation between where they worked previously and the job they had, to success in the new job and company.
That isn’t because experience doesn’t matter. It’s because high-performing experience matters!
Therein lies our problem. We can’t measure the performance of someone’s past job.
Let’s get back to our lawyer and doctor examples. What if I now told you that our lawyer, who has tried over 2,000 cases, actually lost every case? You would obviously try the inexperienced lawyer! Same with our doctor. The doctor who had 1,000 brain surgeries under their belt has a success rate of 10%. But our 50 case doctor has a success rate of 90%!
But wait, what if I tell you the “experienced” doctor only takes on the most difficult last-chance cases? And the less experienced doctor is given the “easy” cases where the vast majority of patients are thought to recover. Does that make a difference? You see how complicated “experience” as a factor can be.
Performance matters a great deal!
If you are looking to hire the best talent, it’s not only about skill. It’s about choosing individuals who have the skill to do that job at a baseline, then looking at their experience and their performance, and probably their intrinsic motivation. This is why a job sample is the number one predictor of a new hire performing well on the job. If they can actually do the job, successfully, then it stands to show they will probably be successful when we hire them. Although, even that isn’t guaranteed. We then add in factors like culture, leadership, peer support, etc.
It turns out hiring is really hard.
So, why is everyone saying the future of talent is skills?
I believe it’s because this is something we can control. It’s tangible and feels like something that can work. I can try and measure for skill. I can assess and build for skill. It seems obtainable, and it seems like something better than our past hiring based on experience.
In reality, hiring and promoting should have always been about skill. And experience. And performance. I want to hire highly skilled people that have amazing experiences and have performed in their previous jobs at a very high level.
What I don’t want to do is blindly hire and promote based on someone’s ability to demonstrate they can do a bunch of random skills. A job and performing in that job is not just about doing a bunch of random skills. That simplifies what employees do down too far. People and work are much more complex than just skills.
Skills. Experience. Performance. I want to hire the complete package. Be careful selling “skills” as a strategy to your executives. Most executives have great experience and high performance, and they actually believe that matters. Because it does.
I would say performance is how you put your skills (and other intangible qualities like motivation) to use, and experience is the past history of performance, which you can then draw on to improve your performance going forward (all the while deepening and widening your skillset).
Hey Tim — You are absolutely right about experience and the ageism that permeates so many from those who want to pooh-pooh it. Having said that, I’m a guy with a LOT of experience looking to find something new since my gig at Fuel50 is coming to an end. I have been writing a Weekly Wrap-up of news in the talent management, HR, and recruiting space the last few months, and it has been wildly popular at Fuel50. That’s because it’s viewed through the lens of my long experience in this space, and, is written in my “voice” that is compelling and engaging. Is there anyone out there looking for something like that? If so, reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.