Skills not degrees: Recruiting a workplace-ready tech workforce

today2022.06.17. 4501 5 5


Farai Mugabe, Content & Research, The HR Congress


There has been a rise in the demand for tech talent, especially in software development, as the world continues to be digital. Still, businesses fail to find workplace-ready talent to fill critical positions. Employers in the tech industry are shifting their focus from academic degrees to the right skills and rethinking the way they recruit and attract talent with the required skills.

IBM is famous for its hiring approach, which focuses on skills over degrees.1 Nickle LaMareaux, CHRO for IBM, indicates that this ‘skills-over-degrees’ approach to hiring is a response strategy to a shortage of skilled tech workers worldwide. Research by Accenture, Grads of Life, and Harvard Business School indicates that businesses have steadily added jobs averaging 200 000 per month but fail to find workplace-ready talent to fill critical positions.2 Nearly half of employers indicated they do not have the digital skills they need.3 In the face of such a global skills challenge, research by Bersin indicates that 74% of companies get recruitment done correctly. It has become critical for companies to be able to test for critical skills which will assess the workplace readiness of employees they intend to hire and those they already work with.4

The rise in demand for tech talent

There has been a rise in the demand for tech talent, especially in software development, as the world continues to be digital. Deloitte indicates that “the spread of technological progress has never been as evident to the common observer as in the last decade.” Technology has disrupted and overlapped in almost all industries, including agriculture, logistics, and education.5

Tech talent, especially software development talent, has been scarce globally. Employers in the tech industry are considering the removal of degrees and focusing on skills instead. Companies such as IBM and Google do not hire for degrees but talent. Research by Accenture, Grads of Life, and Harvard Business School indicates that this will widen the talent pool and competitiveness of business. 

The need for skills-based recruitment

Deloitte defines skills as “the tactical knowledge or expertise needed to achieve work outcomes within a specific context. Skills are specific to a particular function, tool, or outcome, and an individual applies them to accomplish a given task.” While skills can be acquired through degrees, research has shown that more than half of the critical skills that industry needs to be acquired through non-conventional means. Individuals can learn software code using non-conventional means such as YouTube and boot camps.6

University graduates are still found lacking in terms of having workplace-ready skills and will require more on-the-job training for them to be more effective software developers. A degree does not necessarily mean that someone is capable of doing the actual job—a degree is a just qualification. Companies are not necessarily interested in qualification but in delivering solutions to their customers. If companies find talent that can effectively deliver customer solutions, they will hire the person.7

As companies seek to recruit software development staff, they face key challenges, including the ones below:

  1.  Bad recruitment experience

PWC indicates that 49% of job seekers working in in-demand fields such as technology turned down job offers due to bad experiences they encountered during recruitment. What convectional recruitment talent misses is that software development is a hands-on field.8 Some interviews are usually verbal with a lack of testing for practical skills.

Recruiters might not have a strong hands-on software development background to enable them to test for technical skills effectively. Time schedules often result in hurried work. They fail to recruit the right talent because they do not have the right recruitment tools. This often results in companies failing to get the right software development talent. A good recruitment tool can help a business or recruiter select the right talent and test for skills. 

  1. Failure to appeal to highly skilled software development talent

IT talent, including software developers, prefers a more flexible and goal-driven work environment.9 Traditional ways of management repel talent.10 Some companies still use traditional ways of management to manage IT talent. Quite often, such companies fail to appeal to IT talent as the right environment for the talent to grow and thrive. In the end, companies fail to get the right hire quality and get a low candidate response rate when they advertise for open positions. 

  1. Finding the right skillset 

Finding the right skill set has been a challenge in the IT industry because software development is always evolving with new technologies emerging. There are many technologies used in computer programming.11 Computer programmers often specialize in a given programming language or area. They tend to specialize in either front-end or back-end computer programing. Few of them are full-stack software engineers. Full-stack software engineers are usually not proficient in all areas of software development. Software developers also tend to specialize in different computer programming languages, such as JavaScript, Python, and PHP.  

  1. The rise of self-taught skills 

There has been a rise in self-taught skills in software development and other roles such as digital marketing. Several top software developers, such as Tiffany Mikel and Dani Owens, are reported not to have formal university education in computer science or computer programming. Tech industry leaders such as Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Dell, and Bill Gates  dropped out of university, leading and building tech companies without completing a four-year university degree.12

  1. Skills getting absolute 

LaMoreaux indicates that “the half-life of skills is shortening.” This means that employees will require continuous training and development to be up-to-date with modern-day technological changes.1 Programing languages are always changing as they become updated; for example, the first version of JavaScript or Angular is no longer the same as the one used today. The environment that we operate in has become more agile and change-driven. IT skills continuously change as we move on in times of BANI and industry 4.0.13 New skills are required, yet few IT professionals have up-to-date skills.

How to close the gaps

  1. Invest in the right tool to test for skills 

As said before, managers fail to recruit the right talent because they do not have the right recruitment tools.14 This often results in companies failing to get the right IT talent they need. A good recruitment tool can help a business or recruiter to select the right talent and test for skills. Managers should therefore invest in the right tools to help them test for the software development tools they need. 

  1. Consider using referrals in recruitment 

Employee referrals are powerful in helping companies find the right software development talent. Like all other professionals, software development professionals have their communities of practice which they use to interact and network. Such communities can help employers find the right talent with the required skill set. 

  1. Digitalise recruitment

Recruitment processes remain manual in most circumstances. This often results in an increased time to fill a vacancy and negatively affects the quality of hire. Like all HR functions, recruitment has to change and become more aligned with the changing work environment. Companies and recruiters have to make their processes digital to enhance the candidate experience, improve quality of hire, reduce cost per hire and reduce the time to fill a position.  

  1. Develop a good Employer Value Proposition (EVP)

Companies need to develop a compelling Employer Proposition (EVP) that will help them attract the right talent.15 A good Employer Value Proposition (EVP) is a talent magnet that companies use to attract talent. It shows the value the company offers to employees.16 Recruiters should focus on what software developers look for in a work environment. This includes a more flexible work environment, great rewards, a good learning environment, a good social environment, and a goal-driven environment. Companies should also go a step further to remodel their workplaces to deliver what they promise in their EVP.16

  1. Develop robust talent development programs that are lined up after recruitment

As indicated before, software development skills often become absolute as technologies change. There is a need to continuously develop skills in line with new technologies. After recruiting talent, companies should have a robust and structured approach to equip their talent with the necessary hands-on and transferable skills. To close such a gap, IBM created apprenticeship programs and an internal learning platform, which Nickle LaMareaux calls a “Netflix for learning.” These are programs tailored to the individual’s skill set and IBM’s needs. 

  1. Focus on data-driven recruitment

The data revolution has taught us that data-based decisions help to make sound decisions that are rational and accurate. As such, recruitment should be based on data. Companies should be able to measure employee skills, analyze data and spot trends in recruitment. They should closely monitor key recruitment metrics, such as quality of hire, time to fill a vacancy, hiring manager satisfaction rate and cost per hire. 17

While academic degrees are critical in developing skills and boosting the intellectual capacity of staff, the impact of skill-based recruitment cannot be underestimated. The environment has been changing, and there has been a rise in demand for software developers and IT talent. Companies often struggle to get the right talent with the right skills they require. Therefore, it is important for companies to reimagine how they recruit and attract talent with the right skills required. 

1Why IBM chooses skills over degrees, by Nikcle LaMoreaux, Gallup Workplace

2Dismissed by degrees: How degree inflation is undermining U.S competitiveness and hurting America’s middle class, by Joseph B. Fuller, Manjari Raman, Michelle Harker, Melissa A. Moloney, Robbin Boggs, Elyse Rosenblum, and Valerie Beilenson, Research by Accenture, Grads of Life, and Harvard Business School indicates

3Nearly Half of companies say they don’t have the Digital Skills they need, by Jeremy Goldman, Harvard Business Review

4Recruiting is harder than it looks: 74 % of companies underperform, by Josh Bersin, Josh Bersin Academy

5The tech workforce is expanding and changing as different sectors battle for talent: Talent Economics Spotlight December 2021, by Akrur Barua, Deloitte

6Skills change, but capabilities endure, Why fostering human capabilities first might be more important than reskilling the future of work, by Deloitte Centre for Edge, Deloitte

7Struggles of new college graduates in their first software development job, by Andrew Begel and Beth Simon, Microsoft Research and University of California

8The future of recruiting: What job seekers want, PWC, PWC

9Navigating the pandemic trends in Talent: Rethinking how we source talent, Giorgia Calabria, HR Congress

10Employees don’t leave companies, they leave managers, by Jason Pilgrim

11Tech Hiring lessons from 15 Fastest-scaling tech companies, Codility, Hiring Lessons From the 15 Fastest-Scaling Tech Companies.pdf    

12TOP-5 Programmers Who skipped college, by Famous Programmer

13From VUCA to BANI: Five key HR issues to deal with for HR teams today, Farai Mugabe, HR Congress

14 Hire the best developers, anywhere, by Codility

15Hiring lessons from the 15 fastest-scaling Tech companies, by Codility

16Talent@Work – Reimagining Talent Management, by Mihaly Nagy, HR Congress

17Codility Survey Findings: Developers who code feel success more often at work, by Codility Programming Report.pdf 

Written by: Mihaly Nagy

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