Skills-first hiring—where employers look beyond long-established requirements such as college degrees and prior job duties to focus instead on a job applicant's hard and soft skills—has been gaining support from academics, policymakers, innovators, nonprofits and employers.
Now game-changing artificial intelligence (AI) is being seen as a potential accelerant for the movement, both as a way to identify skills and operationalize skills mobility and as the catalyst to do so.
"AI will fundamentally change how we build careers and companies," said Aneesh Raman, vice president and head of The Opportunity Project at LinkedIn, which works with leaders across sectors to build a more inclusive labor market. "The only way to get your head around that huge change is with a skills-first mindset. If we can get the intent, the systems, the playbook right, there is a better world of work at the other end. It is possible that opportunities will finally be available to everyone, everywhere—that is the North Star for the skills-first movement."
Gerald Chertavian, founder and CEO of Year Up, a workforce development organization in Boston, said the advent and widespread rollout of AI will benefit the skills-first movement by enabling greater understanding among managers about what skills they need and where skills gaps exist.
"AI is the catalyst that will usher forward a positive era of skills-first hiring as long as employers continue to prioritize this shift," he said. "One of the great lies in business is that your manager is responsible for your career development. The reality is that most managers are too busy to do that. But think of a world in which AI helps you more clearly navigate an organization to gain skills and experiences."
Chertavian said he understands that something as powerful as AI can be misused. But he also trusts that people will recognize when that is happening and correct it.
"I promise you that AI will do more good than bad and push the skills-first movement beyond anything we have ever seen," he said.
Skills-first advocates say the practice of hiring for skills over pedigree expands opportunities for the millions of people without college degrees. But they expect the practice will also help employers deal with a quickly changing future of work.
"We know that jobs are changing on us even when we are not changing jobs," Raman said. "Twenty-five percent of skills have changed since 2015. By 2027, this number is expected to double. Systems will have to adapt to that."
Raman said that society is up to the challenge. "We've been here before," he said. "Sixty percent of the jobs that exist now didn't exist in 1940. Jobs will change, but employment will not go away."
He added that employers in the future will become more like educators. "They will train to hire, train to promote, encourage lateral movement, and offer upskilling and reskilling, which will become core to individual success," he said. "I can see employers offering boot camps for soft skills like collaboration and critical thinking, just like they do for coding."
People's intent with regard to AI will exacerbate or mitigate biases and expand or contract opportunity, experts say.
Intent matters, said Byron Auguste, CEO and co-founder of the nonprofit Opportunity@Work. "Don't blame the tools, fix the rules," he said. "If your intention is to find more sophisticated ways to screen people in, then AI can be incredibly powerful. One of the most powerful insights is seeing skills proximity between where someone is and where they need to be for a new role. Very often, that skills gap is pretty small. If you can identify that, you can develop that person. But if you don't intend to do that, it won't work."
Skills as the Foundation
Raman said employers are currently in a false debate between skills and degrees. "That's missing the point," he said. "Degrees are still the most established way that we credential skills. We're not saying, 'Get rid of degrees.' But skills are foundational and bring objectivity to the labor market. Skills lie below, and credentials and how to contextualize skills lie above that."
Without skills intelligence powered by technology, it was hard to evaluate job candidates, so employers historically relied on signals such as education and work experience, he noted.
"Before AI, the 'how' was hard," Raman said, referring to hiring and developing people based on skills. "How do you write a skills taxonomy? AI will help us manage that."
He added that access to higher education will remain important, but in the future, the shelf life of a degree in terms of employable skills will shrink dramatically because of the emergence of AI and other technological changes.
"Employers will have to start thinking differently about the talent they have and the talent they're hiring," Raman said.
Employer Call to Action
Employers are taking the lead in the skills-first movement, but even the most involved employers are barely getting started, explained Cat Ward, vice president of the employer mobilization practice at Jobs for the Future, a workforce development advocacy group based in Boston. "This is complex change," she said. "It is hard."
Auguste said that change must come from employers first. "The labor shortage problem is not a labor supply problem, this is a labor demand problem," he said. "The supply side of the market is shaped by employer demand. Employers say, 'Schools don't give us the skills we need,' but employers aren't asking for skills, they are asking for degrees, and that's what is given."
Once that motivation is recognized, employers can adopt a skills-first approach.
Ward recommended beginning with "the skilled roles that are difficult to hire for and that you need a lot of. Start there, not with all your jobs."
Chertavian said employers know that reducing the college degree requirement is necessary but insufficient. It's also easy. The hard part is changing internal HR processes.
"How do you recruit differently, interview differently, onboard differently?" he said. "How do you rewrite job descriptions for skills-based hiring? How do you re-credential jobs? This might require employer communities of practice, where organizations help each other to do it well."
Ward added that a skills taxonomy must be built and integrated throughout the organization.
"That means the ATS, the talent management system," she said. She added that ideally, a skills taxonomy would align with other industry employers and educational institutions to build the infrastructure that will allow a common language and help AI work better across the entire employment ecosystem.
Future of the Skills-First Movement
Much of the skills-first movement's early success in the private sector has been in the tech industry, Raman said. But other sectors are thinking about how to take a skills-first approach, including retail, finance, health care and professional services.
The skills-first initiative will have to move from the corporate social responsibility "do-good bucket" to a business-relevant activity, Chertavian said, with people specifically hired to manage it, measure it, hold efforts accountable and operationalize it at scale.
"Businesses are seeing a convergence between what is good for their bottom line and what is good for society," he said. "Because if you over-credential a job, [then] you pay more in salary, get less diversity, it takes longer to hire and the person leaves more quickly. Fixing something that benefits both the bottom line and society is not typical."
Ward said the entire learn-to-work ecosystem will need to shift if skills-first hiring is to work across society. Employers must continue to innovate with AI and skills-first efforts, going beyond hiring to internal mobility. Education providers must adopt a skills-first approach, looking beyond completion of a degree as the metric of success and instead placing value on gaining skills that have currency in the labor market. And policymakers must continue to work toward a skills-first future.
"Despite the gridlock we see in government, this is a purple issue," she said. "Both sides of the aisle feel that we need to reinvent hiring and the way that we connect work and learning."