With unemployment in the USA continuing to hover around 4 percent, the struggle to fill open positions remains one of employers’ biggest concerns. In fact, just over 40 percent of respondents to the ASQ 2018 Manufacturing Outlook Survey point to “finding skilled workers” as their top challenge this year (whereas “the economy” is seen as the biggest problem by only 30 percent). But this shortage doesn’t mean that there’s a surplus of open positions. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there are nearly as many job seekers as there are job openings.

And yet jobs remain unfilled. Why? This hiring gap exists mostly because of a lack of alignment between the skills of the unemployed and the skills that companies want. The solution is simple: if they want to fill their open positions, hiring managers and HR need to figure out how to bridge that gap.

To accomplish this, more and more companies are adopting a new approach: instead of hiring for very specific skills, they are hiring for aptitude. The traditional hiring model has long emphasized finding candidates with top-notch backgrounds (in terms of experience, skills, and training), with the most desirable catches being “star” employees with well-established track records. But when such candidates aren’t available (or aren’t affordable), companies find themselves in a bind.

A few years ago, David K. Williams (then the CEO of Fishbowl, a company that provides inventory management software) described how his company had achieved great success by not following that traditional hiring model. The hiring managers at Fishbowl looked for candidates who exhibited certain traits—in particular, respect, belief, loyalty, commitment, trust, courage, and gratitude. By emphasizing those traits over stellar resumes, the company identified and hired excellent employees who otherwise might have been overlooked. Reflecting on the success of this strategy, Williams said, “I maintain that most any company, particularly in the growth phase, is better off by discovering potential stars . . . in the making and creating a healthy holding environment that allows and encourages them to grow.”

The growth aspect of such an environment is key to the success of this new approach. By hiring for aptitude or potential—and then providing opportunities for their employees to develop that aptitude or potential—a company can create the workforce it needs. Companies have long turned to classes, workshops, and presentations for employee training. But they shouldn’t forget that cross training and job rotation, too, can serve as excellent development vectors.

Not only do these strategies help companies develop their employees’ skill sets in needed areas, but they also help companies improve their employee satisfaction and retention rates. People want to feel that they are making progress in their work and in their careers, and fewer things kill employee motivation faster than a sense of stagnation. Someone who thinks that his or her position is a dead end may start looking for alternative paths in other organizations.

Why should companies limit themselves by looking only for fully qualified (on paper, at least) candidates when they can instead hire people who have the potential to be whatever the organization needs? And why wouldn’t organizations want to offer development opportunities that not only train employees to fill a company’s needs but also keep them happy and engaged enough not to look for greener grass elsewhere? When a strategy presents a win-win situation for everyone involved, companies that fail to leverage its potential are missing out on opportunities to develop their own potential.

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