In Hiring, Some Companies Move Toward Focus on Skills Over Experience

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Illustration of a clipboard with check marks, and

Newer hiring models based on skills applicants have learned and their general potential for growth could avoid the drawbacks of relying on degrees and experience.

Pictured: Illustration of a clipboard with check marks, and two people shaking hands/iStock, PCH-Vector

The Catch-22 of needing experience for jobs and jobs for experience may soon be a thing of the past. Some life science companies are adopting a model called skills-based hiring, in which they focus on applicants’ abilities and potential for growth. This model not only opens up jobs to a broad range of candidates but it also allows people to move between jobs with ease.

For decades, companies have valued relevant degrees and experience when hiring employees. On the heels of an unprecedented labor shortage and evidence showing that experience is not linked to work performance, some organizations are keen to shake up the way they view employees and recruit people, according to a report released by Deloitte last year.

Skills-based models force companies to break down jobs into the essential skills one needs to perform them. This redirects the focus from exclusively seeking people who have acquired skills through formal training (e.g., attaining a computer science degree) to also considering those who have learned from life experiences and other jobs (e.g., learning coding by helping a local nonprofit with its IT needs). Deloitte’s survey showed that companies using skills-based approaches were more likely to hire the right people for the right job, have positive work environments and retain high-performing employees.

BioSpace spoke with two HR experts to find out what this hiring trend means for candidates and workers in biopharma.

Breaking Jobs Down into Skills

One of the key tenets of skills-based hiring is making a list of skills needed to perform a job. This is usually termed a “skills inventory” or “skills taxonomy” and can be made either manually or, increasingly, with the help of machine learning and AI tools like Eightfold, an AI-based talent acquisition and management platform.

Céline Raffray, vice president of talent acquisition at Bristol-Myers Squibb, emphasized the importance of closely examining job descriptions and requirements to determine: “What are the skills? What is the content of the role? There is a solid work which has to be done in partnership with the entire HR team.” By clearly defining what it takes to do a specific job, she said, companies can move away from hiring people for job titles and toward hiring for the actual work that needs to be done.

Although Bristol-Myers Squibb is building its skills taxonomy in-house, it uses Eightfold for other aspects of skills-based hiring such as sourcing and matching a candidate’s skills to those needed for a job. By tapping into existing skills taxonomies and combing through applications, Eightfold’s algorithm can help narrow down candidates with the right skills for the job. However, Raffray stressed that “AI does not replace the recruiter and the manager.” Humans are still very much involved in reading through applications and deciding who gets called for an interview.

Assessing One’s Skills

A common requirement in life science job descriptions is project management, a skill not many traditional scientists may feel they possess. But most researchers have, at some point, worked with other scientists, written grant proposals and mentored younger scientists. These skills translate to aspects of project management like collaboration, setting a budget and managing talent.

Mari Milsom, CEO and founder of the consultancy HR Biscuit, says that when responding to a job call, candidates must think deeply about what the job requires, how they are equipped to perform the job, and areas in which they need to grow. It may not always be obvious that they have the skills needed for the job, but Milsom urges candidates to think back on their lives and how they have handled different situations.

She uses adaptability, a skill now in demand given rapidly changing business landscapes and the economic repercussions of climate change, as an example. “We know that somebody’s awareness of change enables them to be more adaptable,” she says. So even questions that tease out whether candidates are aware of changes in their environment and how they deal with small life changes can help in figuring out if they are adaptable. A willingness to learn new things also signals adaptability.

Raffray adds that candidates must gauge not just whether they have the required skills but how adept they are at each skill. “Take the time to do a fair assessment as well on where we are in this skillset capability” before talking with a recruiter about which skills are solid and which are still in need of development, she said. “The potential is important.”

Benefits Beyond the Bottom Line

Skills-based models can increase the diversity of the workforce by removing old barriers, Milsom said. Studies have found that traditional hiring systems are biased against recent college graduates, BIPOC candidates and mothers, and Milsom sees skills-based hiring as leveling the playing field. Because skills-based hiring calls for a holistic evaluation of job applicants, the interview process becomes more like a coaching session in that hiring committees do all they can to bring out the best in a candidate. “How people develop skills is through lots of experiences, and not just a single experience,” Milsom said, adding that a candidate’s motivations, behaviors, knowledge and experience are equally important when gauging suitability for a job. She also draws on skills-based hiring to help formerly incarcerated people find jobs: “A lot of them have run great, really successful businesses—just not legal ones.”

This approach can also make it easier for workers to change positions within a company. A core principle of a skills-based model is flexibility, which has prompted companies to expand job descriptions beyond traditional specifications. By portioning out work into small chunks that can be done by people with specific skillsets, organizations can allow workers to move across projects and departments. Companies can thus create “internal talent pools” and let employees flex their creative and intellectual muscles, Raffray said, adding that Bristol-Myers Squibb is already piloting such a program: “For us, the objective is to continue to expand the skills-based recruitment approach.”

Sruthi S. Balakrishnan is a freelance academic editor, science writer and fact-checker based in Santa Barbara, California. She can be reached at