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Shifting to a Skills-Based Workforce: Q&A with SHRM Foundation Program Director Clayton Lord


Much has changed in the hiring process over the past several years: recruiting has gone digital and organizations have shifted their focus to skills-based assessment of applicants to match candidates with in-demand jobs. In a recent interview, Clayton Lord, director of foundation programs at the Society for Human Resource Management (SRHM), spoke with Roy Swift, executive director of Workcred, about how employers are dismantling barriers to skills-based hiring, and how employers and job seekers alike can embrace this change.

Swift: Clayton, there seems to be some confusion about skill-based hiring. How does it differ from current hiring practices?

Lord: At SHRM and the SHRM Foundation, our focus on skills-based hiring and retention is not to the detriment of degrees. When we think about widening the aperture of hiring, we really talk about it as a triangle. On one line of the triangle, you've got the hard skills. On the second side, you've got your soft skills. And then the third side of the triangle is your inherent aptitude or ability to do things. All of these have been, consciously or unconsciously, proxied by being “degreed,” but that locks out a lot of people from work. We are interested in breaking down that proxy, and helping hiring professionals find the best candidates from the broadest spectrum possible: in terms of hard and soft skills, ability to integrate into the work culture and do well without being negatively disruptive, and also drive progress and innovation.

Swift: Recently, there has been a lot of movement in the public sector to push towards a skills-based hiring mindset. Why is that?

Lord: We’ve heard a lot about federal government and also state governments’ skills-based hiring mindsets. That's because assessing skills instead of degrees is one of the ways that you can put more people into good jobs. It serves the government's interest to try and drive a skills-based hiring mindset. What’s nice is that it also serves the employer’s interest.

Right now, there are millions of open jobs in the country every year, and about three-quarters of them currently have a degree requirement. At the same time, 62% of all working age adults in the United States don't have a four-year degree. So, you have two-thirds of all of the people who are trying to find jobs able to access one-quarter of those jobs. That's untenable, and it has created an unbalanced supply-demand scenario that has come to a head. This has created a moment of opportunity for all sorts of people who have navigated to the skills and aptitudes that they have through alternative routes that don't involve them taking the time and money to go and get a degree.

Swift: What are the barriers that keep employers—particularly small- and mid-size ones—from adopting skills-based hiring?

Lord: At SHRM, we have a significant percentage of our membership that are small- to mid-sized businesses. When we think about trying to encourage employers to transition to a skills-based hiring mindset, one of the biggest barriers is that we are essentially asking them to spend more time doing something more complicated and potentially riskier, in order to fill the same number of positions. We're spending a lot of time trying to address that side of the return on investment (ROI).

Our research shows that something like 90 percent of all HR professionals agree that a skills-based hiring mindset can get you quality candidates, and that it's generally a good idea. But only about 15 percent of them say that they're actively incorporating or willing to incorporate a skills-based mindset in terms of hiring.

Swift: Why do you think this gap exists?

Lord: Employers tell us it has to do with three fundamental things. The first is that the ROI for this is really murky, as I talked about before.

The second is that, with more than a million credential options out there, there's this real challenge of trust and question of quality not only in terms of credentials, but also in terms of the vendors who are providing the tools to assess those credentials, as well as the folks who are trying to train HR professionals to be able to do this work.

And then the third thing, which is not a small thing, is that it's really an isolating experience right now for HR professionals who want to try and scale this work. There's not a ton of community of practice. There aren't a lot of great examples out there of how employers can do this successfully. Often, as is always the case when you're sort of the champion of something new, one ends up in conflict with different decision-makers within their organization who want to maintain the status quo.

Swift: Considering these challenges, how do employers begin to make the change to skills-based hiring?

Lord: There are a lot of incremental steps that people can take right now—whether it's about career pathway mapping, integrating a robust professional development system for your current employees, revising your job description so that it’s skills-first instead of degree-oriented, or implementing new enterprise technology that allows you to parse the skills out of someone's resume and the skills from the job description to see who has the highest match.

At SHRM, we have been experimenting with skills-based hiring processes and alternative-to-degree hiring processes, and have created a suite of resources at that includes research, training, and toolkits to support employers to identify and then implement incremental, measurable, manageable practice.

Swift: What else is SHRM Foundation doing to shift employers’ approaches to assess competency, and what are some of the tools that they can use?

Lord: We are experimenting with more prolonged interview processes so that people have more of an opportunity to verbally share the skills, and also the reasons, aptitudes, and passions that they want to bring into a position. We run an apprenticeship program—an earn-and-learn model apprenticeship program in HR—and we also have an apprentice from that program who is part of our SHRM staff. We're trying to understand how this can work in a field that has historically not used apprenticeship or earn-and-learn models. We know that one of the big barriers for a lot of people is they can't afford to stop working and go to school. So, if there are alternative ways for them to gain the skills that they need to succeed in the job—like apprenticeship—without stopping work, that's good and we want to proliferate those things.

We are working alongside various other organizations working on what are called learning and employment records (LERs), sometimes also called digital wallets. In the same way that you can have your driver's license on your phone now in many states, LERs are designed to allow you to carry your skills with you wherever you go. And in an ideal world, they're also designed to make both the job-seeking and the talent-seeking process simpler. So ideally, in the same way that you are doing right now when you're retooling your resume and cover letter to match the job description, LERS would enable people to go through and cherry pick the aspects of skills and aptitudes that are most appropriate for the job.


Anyone interested in learning more or teaming up with Workcred can reach us at or [email protected].

Clayton Lord



Jana Zabinski

Senior Director, Communications & Public Relations


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Beth Goodbaum

Journalist/Communications Specialist


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