Hiring for Potential: Addressing the Workforce Skills Gap

Outfielder Gary Brown of the San Jose Giants, San Francisco farm team 2011, by Dirk Hansen.

Lately we’ve been hearing and reading a lot about the skills gap. This gap, which stems from an apparent disconnect between post-secondary school curricula and what’s needed in the workplace, is making it difficult for employers to fill needed positions, in spite of high unemployment rates. In fact, recent workforce data in the US shows that close to 50% of employers are having trouble finding workers who are adequately trained for available jobs.

In spite of what we hear from employers and in the media, it’s simplistic to suggest that universities and colleges are soley responsible for creating the skills gap by being unreceptive to the needs of employers. The reality is much more complicated. Many factors are contributing to the growing skills gap in North America, including:

Added Impact of an Aging Workforce

In many industries, the convergence of a skills gap at the entry level and the anticipated retirement of many experienced workers over the next 3-10 years, threatens a potential crisis that has HR Professionals, employers and even governments worried. There is no question that the skills gap is real. Even if governments and educational institutions were to respond rapidly (inherent contradiction noted!), it would take years for the impact of curriculum change or immigration policies to make a difference.

Addressing the Workforce Skills Gap

Some employers recognize that reality and are stepping into the breach in a variety of ways. One such company, Fishbowl, has taken a contrarian approach to hiring by actively seeking out less qualified candidates who demonstrate a cultural fit and then training them on the job. Others are banding together with local government and educational institutions to create innovative programs that target and address the skills gaps in specific regions.

For employers, there will always be an internal debate—do we hold out for the ideal candidate, or hire for potential and develop? While there is no right answer to this debate, the existing skills shortage is likely to grow as the economy recovers and change continues to accelerate. It may be time for a new approach.

Consider this: If companies were professional sports franchises, they might embrace the idea of hiring for potential: creating a farm team of up-and-comers who show talent, but need polish. With the addition of excellent coaches and mentors, they’d be well on the way to building some excellent bench strength. More importantly, these future stars would aim to excel, eagerly striving to be “called up” to the big leagues.


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Photo credit: Outfielder Gary Brown of the San Jose Giants, San Francisco farm team 2011, by Dirk Hansen. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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