Making Sense of Skills Based Hiring

Grace Heffernan

Everywhere I turn it seems like people are talking about the changing nature of work.  In fact, just last month as a part of In Demand Jobs Week, OMJ ClevelandICuyahoga County hosted Social Policy Research Associates (SPR) to discuss the very topic.  And while the discussion was varied, covering everything from robots and artificial intelligence to localism and economic indicators, the part that stuck with me was that as the world of work evolves, so too must hiring.

Technology and globalization have advanced industry, while hiring practices have not kept pace.  This results in a familiar story of millions of jobseekers going unemployed or underemployed, while employers report that they are unable to find the requisite talent for their open positions.  While the talent divide is a multi-faceted challenge, skills-based sourcing, hiring, and development provides a comprehensive, objective, and easily accessible way for business to identify qualified candidates, while also providing jobseekers without traditional educational credentials or experience access to expanded opportunities and targeted job preparation

Innovative skills based solutions to hiring are being implemented across the country.  In April, Google and Walmart teamed up to tackle the issue with a plan that focuses on helping people to identify and easily acquire job-relevant skills, while also helping employers to recognize prospective employees who present with the right skills.  Tech companies like Skillist and Opportunity@Work were featured at the national JFF Horizons Conference for using skills-centric approaches to bring hiring into the 21st century. And meanwhile, in Northeast Ohio, Towards Employment  continues to explore skills based hiring practices through initiatives like TalentNEO and  Hope Street Group’s Manufacturing Career Pathways Network.

While each of these approaches is unique, they are all built on a foundation that prioritizes job matching on the basis of skills rather than traditional educational credentials and experience.  In order for an employer to make a hiring decision based on skills, they must have the right tools to validate those skills presented by jobseekers.  As such, the number of assessments and screening tools has exploded and there are thousands of options available for use today.

The market is complex and it can be difficult to discern which tools are appropriate for a given situation and a true predictor of on-the-job success.  To help make sense of the noise, Towards Employment has been working on an assessment and screening tool scan.  The purpose of this scan is not to provide an exhaustive list of those available, but rather to provide an overview of the common types and how they relate, complement, and differ from one another. We have organized the assessments and tools into six categories: job or industry specific, cognitive, academic, career advising, remediation, and personal and people (soft skills).

Job or Industry Specific Assessments

Job or Industry Specific Assessments measure the technical skills and abilities needed to do a job. These assessments can be used as a part of a formal credentialing process or as part of a pre-employment screening. The NIMS and STNA certifications are examples of industry recognized credentials, whereas the HR Avatar, Bennett Mechanical, and ProveIT assessments screen for skills needed for a particular job or job family.

Cognitive Skills Assessments

Cognitive skill assessments measure an individual’s ability to apply conscious, intellectual effort to situations that require thinking, reasoning, and remembering and requires an individual to perform a specified skill in order to answer items correctly. Research shows that cognitive ability is a strong, reliable predictor of on the job performance. 

Academic Assessments

These assessments are tools to measure an individual’s summative academic knowledge. They can, in the case of high school equivalency assessments, act as a credential. For other assessments, they can act as a diagnostic tool so that students can be given appropriate class placements and curriculum. 

These tools are used particularly in Adult Basic Education.  Academic and cognitive assessments are often thought of as interchangeable; however, they measure different things (e.g., TABE and WorkKeys).

TalentNEO pilot project data showed that candidates often scored higher on a WorkKeys assessment than the “equivalent” on a TABE; e.g., they could demonstrate higher level language and math skills in an applied context (more closely resembling what their job would require) than on an academic assessment.

Career Advising

The purpose of these assessments is to help jobseekers and career coaches identify careers for which an individual might be best suited. Many of these products contain an employer component that matches users directly to open positions and grants employers access to a database of users.

Remediation Tools

These products represent a range of approaches to delivering instruction that is intended to improve basic math and literacy skills in adults. Products in this category can be used as an activity with teacher led instruction or can be accessed by students for distance learning. The purpose of these products is skill development and instruction.

Personal and People Assessments (Soft Skills)

Soft skills are the characterization of a person’s relationship to and ability to work with other people. Soft skills can and should be a complement to hard skills, which refer to cognitive and occupational skills. One difficulty with only assessing for soft skills is that they are often conflated with personality traits or cultural factors which can lead to assessments being biased and of little use as valid screening tools.

“Most pre-employment personality assessments are intended to measure traits considered part of a normal personality and to capture data on variables (such as motivation, honesty, self-control, persistence, leadership, and team working ability) that are believed to be relevant to work performance.” 

“Although businesses increasingly rely on personality assessments to select their employees, substantial research has failed to establish significant correlation between personality test scores and employee performance. Additional issues include language that is often unfamiliar and ambiguous, and potential bias based on race or disability.”  Therefore these tests don’t have the validity of other types of assessments. 

To combat these issues, providers can use in-person training to diagnose and upskill an individual’s soft skills. This in-person work can be combined with cognitive or occupational assessments as a demonstration of career readiness.[i]

At Towards Employment, we’ve come to realize that no single assessment tool or category of assessment is a one size fits all solution to hiring.  In many cases it is a more blended approach that will lead to success and expanded opportunities for jobseekers.  For instance, for our skills based hiring initiative TalentNEO, we have chosen to use the cognitive skills assessments- WorkKeys® because it is a nationally recognized, portable credential that is already being used by training providers, employers, and the state OMJ system.  And while, the WorkKeys scores can tell us a lot about a jobseeker’s foundational skills, they still don’t solve for some of the other barriers that keep people from being successful on the job – like soft or technical skills.  So in combination with the WorkKeys assessments, we offer in person career readiness training that focuses on improving soft skills while also connecting jobseekers to the required technical training and industry credentials that are necessary for their desired career path.

So all of this is to say, skills are the future of hiring.  And to that end, skill assessments are a critical component, but not a silver bullet.  They must be delivered thoughtfully, intentionally and with the utmost care that they are being used to expand and improve opportunities for jobseekers.

Grace Heffernan