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Hiring for potential: your least qualified candidate may be best

While the concept of a “skills gap” has been criticized, for many hiring managers the talent shortage is real – very real.

A whopping 40 percent of employers in the United States report difficulty filling certain jobs, according to a recent talent shortage survey from ManpowerGroup.

If you’re trying to hire engineers, sales managers and reps, administrative assistants, or accounting and finance staff, you’ve probably noticed that qualified candidates are hard to come by.

These roles are among the top 10 hardest-to-fill American jobs, according to the survey.

Because of this, hiring managers are facing some tough questions. How will the business be affected by a long-term vacant position? Can we offer more in compensation and benefits? Should I hire a less experienced new employee who has potential?

In this post, we’re going to take a closer look at the latter – hiring for potential rather than experience.

Whether your company needs employees who are in high demand or hard-to-find, knowing how to hire for potential versus experience is a skill you most certainly need.

Here’s our guide to beating the skills gap by hiring for potential.

1. Ignore things that you once thought mattered

To hire good employees when it seems like they don’t exist, you have to change your expectations. Which expectations you let go of, however, and which ones you keep is an important distinction.

Judging candidates based on where they went to school, for example, may be an easy way to qualify them, but in the end, experience has shown the recruiting industry that exceptional employees can come from anywhere – not just the “best” schools.

The same thing goes for GPA. According to Laszlo Bock, Google’s Head of People Operations, the company has found that grades predict performance for the first two years of a career, but do not matter after that.

Other things that may not matter?

  • Years of experience
  • Industry experience
  • Already knowing how to do the job

Consider the fact that having eight years of experience may just be one year of experience repeated eight times. And candidates who have worked in other industries often bring fresh insights into their work.

2. Learn to identify high potential

If you’re not going to hire a 4.0, top-tier college graduate with a relevant degree or X years of experience in a similar role, then who do you hire?

According to many recruiters, there are actually a few things that matter a whole lot more than already knowing how to do the job.

Identify promising “inexperienced” employees by hiring for potential and looking for candidates who:

  • Fit your company culture (employee referrals are a great source for culturally-fitting candidates)
  • Are conscientious
  • Show signs of being a good problem solver
  • Can lead – specifically they step in quickly to solve problems and step out when it’s time to let someone else take over
  • Are humble and willing to admit when they’re wrong

People with these qualities are more likely to be coachable and engaged employees who you can train to do the job you need them to do. When you look at resumes, read between the lines to look for these traits.

When you meet candidates in person, ask behavioral and situational interview questions .

For example, these are some behavioral questions:

  • Tell me about how you’ve worked effectively under pressure.
  • How do you handle a challenge? Give an example.
  • Have you ever made a mistake? How did you handle it?
  • Give an example of a goal you reached and tell me how you achieved it.
  • Describe a decision you made that wasn’t popular and how you handled implementing it.
  • Give an example of how you set goals and achieve them.
  • Give an example of how you worked on team.
  • What do you do if you disagree with someone at work?
  • Share an example of how you were able to motivate employees or co-workers.

And here are some sample situational questions to ask when hiring for potential:

  • Describe a situation where you had to collaborate with a difficult colleague.
  • Describe a situation where you had to work with a difficult manager or important client/customer.
  • Describe a situation where you needed to persuade someone to accept your point of view or convince them to change something.
  • Describe a difficult problem you faced and how you approached it.
  • Describe a mistake you’ve made professionally.
  • Describe a situation where you worked under a tight deadline.
  • Describe a time when you received criticism.
  • Describe a situation when you needed to take initiative.
  • Describe a situation when you’ve come onto a new team or a new working environment.
  • Describe a situation where you needed to work with a client or customer who was very different from you.

3. Build a path to success

But without a helpful training and development framework at your organization, high potential won’t flourish. So to truly beat the skills gap, you may have to devote more time to developing talent in the first several months of employment.

For example, with every job description, you could require a new hire to complete a corresponding list of skills-based courses to prepare for the job. For a managerial role, you could require new hires to complete courses on leadership, time management and strategic planning.

Also, some companies like Target , Goldman Sachs and Macy’s have developed focused training programs that offer new graduates access to an entry-level track to a successful career with the company. If you have an area, like sales, with a constant need for talent, a more formalized school-to-work or fast-track program may be worth implementing.

Are your recruiting strategies falling short? Download our free eBook, Talent acquisition: 13 secrets to recruiting and retaining top talent, to get some step-by-step tips on how to hire the talent your business needs to thrive.