How to Develop Assessments That Will Help You Hire for Skills, Not Schools

How to Develop Assessments That Will Help You Hire for Skills, Not Schools

In a 2017 report, researchers from Harvard Business School, Accenture, and Grads of Life discovered that in the United States alone, 6 million middle-skills jobs were at risk of “degree inflation” — the practice of requiring or preferring a college degree for jobs previously held by people without one. This not only created unnecessary barriers to entry for countless skilled job seekers but also made it harder for companies to hire, with two-thirds of employers struggling to fill these roles.

In the years since that study was released, numerous companies have dropped the degree requirement, and many more say they are at least open to hiring candidates with alternative credentials, such as an industry-recognized certification. But these measures don’t necessarily address the underlying issue of how to accurately assess the core skills and competencies that degrees and similarly arbitrary requirements were being used as proxies for.

This is a challenge that LinkedIn faced last year when it set out to test a skills-first hiring approach for one of our customer service teams. Riley Sadowsky, manager of talent acquisition innovation and solutions at LinkedIn, played an integral role in this program, which involved removing experience requirements from job descriptions and incorporating skills assessments into the application process instead.

“What we found,” Riley says, “is that some of the people we hired through the program did not meet the qualifications we’d traditionally looked for. And they’ve been performing well — our hiring managers are really excited.”

You may not need to build skills assessments from the ground up. LinkedIn, for example, recently announced the pilot of Skills Path, a new way for companies to engage in skills-based hiring using LinkedIn Recruiter. Skills Path brings together LinkedIn Learning courses with skill assessments to help recruiters evaluate candidates in a more equitable way — based on their proven skills. Skills Path is still in development, with 20 or so companies currently using  it, and we will keep you updated when it’s ready for a broader deployment.

Every job, of course, calls for its own unique mix of traits and skills. Even teams that already have access to Skills Path may decide to develop complementary evaluations that are tailored to the specific role in question. No matter where you’re starting from, Riley’s tips can help you design a skills assessment that’s accurate, scalable, and fair, based on what she learned along the way.

1. Identify a role (such as one that involves transferable skills) that will be easy to pilot

At LinkedIn, support consultant positions were chosen for the initial pilot because Riley’s team had an immediate idea of how to evaluate some of the necessary skills for this role, such as customer service aptitude. Since the role is relatively high volume, it was also a prime target for an assessment that would help the team quickly hone in on qualified applicants. Plus, it’s the type of job that’s well suited to people with transferable skills, so an assessment would allow these candidates to show their stuff.

If you’re not sure where to begin, Riley suggests looking at roles in recruiting, sales development, and customer service. These fields often attract people from a wide range of professional backgrounds, including those making major career transitions, meaning that past experience in the field often isn’t necessary — it’s the skills that matter.

2. Perform a job analysis to pinpoint the specific skills the role requires, then validate it

Since many companies have previously relied on proxies like education or past work experience to signal that a candidate was capable of performing a job, you may need to conduct a thorough analysis of your chosen position before you can build accurate skills assessments around it.

Riley recommends partnering with managers and individuals on the team you’re hiring for to understand important work behaviors for the role. You can then break these behaviors down into the core building blocks — including hard skills, soft skills, and technical knowledge — before separating them into essential and preferred qualifications.

When you have a complete list, show it to other subject matter experts at the company to validate it. Taking this extra step can help you ensure you’re testing for the right skills — before you put too much time into developing your soft skill assessments.

3. Account for different testing styles, false positives and negatives, and the time commitment required

When it comes time to begin building your assessments, there are many different avenues you can take. Riley and her team decided to work with an industrial-organizational (I/O) psychology consultant to develop a series of multiple-choice behavioral questions to test how candidates would react in different situations that a support consultant might encounter.

To minimize the potential for false positives or negatives (such as a candidate choosing answers at random or misreading one of the prompts), the team set out to have several different questions testing for any given competency. They also adopted a two-pronged approach, backing up the questions with a video assessment where candidates were asked to discuss how they would handle a particular situation with a customer. The idea was that this would provide yet more data points about the candidate’s suitability for the role, winning over any hiring managers with doubts about interviewing someone from a nontraditional background. It also helped to account for the fact that candidates may be better at some types of tests than others.

Another consideration to keep in mind is the time commitment required from candidates. If your assessment is built into the application process, communicate what will be involved in the job description or on the first page of the application to let candidates know to set the appropriate amount of time aside. A lengthy assessment that comes out of nowhere is likely to make the dropout rate spike.

At the same time, it may be best to avoid timed assessments that force candidates to complete tasks quickly. When designing their pilot, Riley and her team realized that time-bound assessments had the potential to eliminate capable candidates, such as those who need longer to read and process questions, which went against the goal of making access to opportunity more equitable.

“We weren’t evaluating them on their test-taking abilities,” Riley points out. “We were testing them on their skills.”

4. Perform rigorous testing before putting the assessment in front of candidates 

Once you’ve developed an assessment that you’re feeling good about, the final step is to test that it actually works before rolling it out to candidates.

Riley notes that working with the industrial-organizational consultant allowed her team to ensure a level of rigor during the testing phase that went a long way toward instilling confidence throughout the organization. But if you don’t have an expert on hand, a good way to validate any assessment is to ask top performers on the team to go through the process.

“The assessment should be something that top performers can pass with flying colors,” Riley explains. This is true whether you built it yourself or are evaluating off-the-shelf options.

To encourage people to help out, make sure they understand your goals, like finding amazing people for their team and building a more inclusive hiring process. Hiring great talent benefits everyone.

Final thoughts

Skills-based hiring can help companies recruit talent from a wide range of backgrounds, allowing them to enjoy all the benefits that different experiences and perspectives can bring. With this being a relatively new approach, however, it will likely take time to develop or identify the right assessments and get all stakeholders at your company on board.

Be thorough when it comes to testing your assessment, and gather plenty of evidence to prove that it works. When your leaders, hiring managers, and recruiting teams see that your assessments can help them quickly and accurately pinpoint exceptional talent, they’ll soon be fans of the approach.

“The traditional ways of recruiting could be really limiting,” Riley says. “This is something that we can add in to find qualified hires efficiently, even as we remove some of the other ways we used to make decisions.”

Posted in: Current Articles, Quality of Hire

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