Why Companies Should Hire for Potential over Pedigree: Q&A with Byron Auguste

We’ve all heard about the problem of the “skills gap.” Yet Byron Auguste, CEO and co-founder of Opportunity@Work, is convinced there are plenty of unemployed and underemployed people with great skills. In this interview, Auguste discusses what's wrong with today's hiring processes and what employers can do differently.

We’ve all heard about the problem of the “skills gap.” Yet Byron Auguste is convinced there are plenty of unemployed and underemployed people with great skills. The problem, he says, lies in how companies go about finding skilled people.

Auguste is CEO and co-founder of Opportunity@Work, a non-profit organization expanding access to technology career opportunities for overlooked and underrepresented job seekers. Auguste will speak in San Francisco at the inaugural Workday Opportunity Onramps on April 24, a workforce development conference with a mission to connect driven individuals from diverse backgrounds with unfilled jobs.

Prior to co-founding Opportunity@Work in 2015, Auguste served in the White House as deputy assistant to the president for economic policy and deputy director of the National Economic Council, focused on policies around job creation and labor markets, skills and workforce, innovation, and infrastructure. Before that, Byron was a senior partner at McKinsey & Company, working in fields ranging from technology, media, and communications to economic development and education.

Below are highlights from our recent conversation with Auguste.

You often talk about problems with today’s hiring practices. How have they changed?

In 1971 my father was working in a warehouse and saw an ad in the newspaper for learning the COBOL programming language. He took the course and then was given the opportunity to get into Detroit Edison—first with a job shadow and then in an apprenticeship role, moving up from there. As a result of this opportunity, he was able to put our family on an entirely different economic trajectory. That was evidence of a system working pretty well.

Today, a company may get 800 resumes, but only wants to interview six people. Through the automated keyword searches of a resume—including academic degrees and work history—it’s decided who a company will take the time to consider for a job. Applicants don’t have the opportunity beyond that to share their backgrounds and skills in meaningful ways.

When we hear a company can’t find the skills they need—that they have a skills gap—they are articulating a genuine business problem, but they may be overlooking solutions that expand the set of applicants being considered. It’s true that not enough people pass resume screens, and not enough people pass the final round of a hiring process, perhaps unable to successfully complete performance tasks they’re given to see if they can do the job. But who gets to that final round, and how is that determined?  That’s not determined by people’s skills for the most part. It’s determined by people’s pedigrees and work history.

“What about people who might have the skills, but didn’t get them in a traditional way?”

Opportunity@Work partners with employers to “hire based on competency and potential, not pedigree.” Can you elaborate?

Pedigree is determined by where someone went to school, what degrees they completed, what jobs they’ve had—in what order and in what time frame—and how those fit the algorithms that reflect who is likely to have the needed skills.

But what about people who might have the skills, but didn’t get them in a traditional way? They may have learned them in the military. Or, what if they have the right skills but were out of the workforce for a few years? Or, maybe it’s someone who is an administrative assistant in a small business and had a knack for IT, and essentially became the IT department. But if that person with IT skills were to apply for an IT job they’d be great at, they might get screened out if a keyword search determined they’re an admin.

How do you help employers find people with the right skills?

We’ve worked with a number of employers and nonprofit partners to launch TechHire.Careers, a skills-based online hiring platform. At the core of the platform are skills challenges—or performance tasks—we’ve created for jobs like software development, quality assurance (QA), data analysis, and desktop support.

These skills challenges enable job seekers that would normally be screened out by an algorithm to demonstrate they can do the job. A QA challenge could be a series of mock websites, where job seekers would have to find the bugs and write up tickets in a way expected of a QA professional. Whether they learned in school or on the job doesn’t really matter.

After job seekers pass the technical challenges, they can then participate in a mock interview for job readiness, which is conducted by volunteers. So far, every volunteer has asked to conduct additional interviews; they’re really passionate about it, and the candidates are so grateful for the feedback. Maybe the job seeker has applied for loads of jobs and isn’t getting interviews, and has no idea why. So the feedback they get through TechHire.Careers is really valuable.

The key is to give employers the confidence to look past pedigree. The skills challenges and mock interviews are signals that this candidate has the skills to do the job, even if they don’t have the pedigree hiring managers typically rely upon.

Is lack of feedback in the hiring process part of the problem?

Absolutely. When people are screened out, instead of giving people a brush off—“Thanks for applying, but no thanks”—employers can give them a handoff to TechHire.Careers instead. Say, “Hey, we aren’t proceeding with this process, but here’s a way you can show what you can do.” If millions of people are applying for jobs, instead of just turning them away, companies could turn them on to other opportunities. And that could scale very quickly.

“There needs to be some means of market-based collective action, with every company putting a little skin in the game to grow the talent pipeline.”

What are some other mistakes companies make that contribute to the skills gap?

A lot of employers have started to say we don’t really do entry-level hiring; we want to hire someone with three-to-five years’ experience. If all employers only hired people with three-to-five years’ experience, in five years there would be no one to hire!

Right now, it’s much easier and less risky to poach workers from other companies. But for every winner in the poaching war, there’s a loser. It’s a zero-sum game. Companies can compete for talent individually, but if they want to expand and broaden the talent pipeline, that needs to be done together.

There needs to be some means of market-based collective action, with every company putting a little skin in the game to grow the talent pipeline. And it’s a market problem, not one that could just be kicked to the government to try and solve. You need the involvement of employers, schools, and workforce programs.

Tell us a bit more about the broader impact of this problem on our country.

We spend a lot of time in Washington and elsewhere wondering what’s wrong with people, and how we can fix them. But for the most part, people don’t need fixing. Our systems and institutions need fixing. Yet when you have to constantly deal with broken system and institutions—that can break people. They become discouraged and don’t think they can make progress, and in many cases they’re right.

As a country we ask, why is productivity growth slowing down? Why do we see a rise in income inequality? Why is there wage stagnation? The culprit in my view is that the largest part of productive capacity in this country—people—are being massively underutilized.

While there are many things we ought to do to move this country forward, there is nothing really more important than giving every person a shot to transfer their effort into progress, and their learning into earning. People aren’t just mouths to feed; they are potential, energy, creativity, effort, and work.

More Reading