3 Tips on Closing the STEM Skills Gap

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Across industries and around the world, companies are facing dramatic talent shortages, with the STEM fields being particularly short-staffed.

In 2016, 13 STEM jobs were posted for each unemployed STEM candidate in the US. Similarly, employers in the UK are looking at 173,000 STEM vacancies, costing them roughly $2 billion per year.

The STEM talent shortage is exacerbated by the fact that many PhDs have technical skills but lack certain soft skills, including communication, leadership, conflict resolution, and project management skills. In today’s dynamic workplace environments, you can’t just hire technically capable people with no soft skills and stick them in the corner. The current economic climate is fast-paced and flexible, requiring teamwork, continuous learning, and collaborative thinking.

Furthermore, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 35 percent of the skills workers need now will change by 2020. Those who are able to respond to the dynamic evolution of the business world, learning new skills and processes on the job, are the ones who will be able to keep up.

To date, attempts to close the skills gap haven’t met with much success. At the outset of 2018, CareerBuilder found  that 45 percent of employers were struggling to find qualified talent to fill their open roles.

While it certainly is hard to find candidates who have both the technical and the soft skills companies need, this state of affairs is due in part to outdated recruitment tactics. Dealing with a talent shortage — especially one that isn’t going away anytime soon — requires thinking outside the box.

Mixing It Up

When it comes to recruiting, time is of the essence. Many companies use LinkedIn Recruiter or LinkedIn Talent Finder to source candidates, refining their searches based on the available filters. However, these tools offer far too many filter categories to produce meaningful results. Most recruiters end up focusing only on a few of the most popular categories, such as preferred location, experience, and job title.

While that might sound like an effective way to search for candidates, you could be missing out on some of your best potential employees. Many people with STEM skills don’t know the intricacies of how to search for a job. Many of them have worked in academia their entire lives, while others haven’t needed to go on the hunt very often, due to their in-demand status. As a result, these talented professionals may not know common best practices when it comes to setting up a LinkedIn profile or strategically using keywords in their resumes.

What does that mean for recruiters? It means there’s an entire pool of qualified candidates you can’t access — because they aren’t tailoring their professional presences to your search methods.

Personally, I think Intel is a great example of a company that has mastered the art of finding and hiring these hard-to-find STEM candidates. The company’s recruiters make it easy for these types of candidates to find jobs and get hired. As a result, those employees often end up referring other qualified people to open jobs at the company, which results in more qualified STEM candidates and less work for recruiters.

To take an unorthodox approach like Intel — and thereby source the STEM talent you lack — keep these tips in mind:

1. Don’t Totally Discount Candidates Who Lack Soft Skills

Don’t throw out candidates simply because they aren’t soft-skill rock stars. While soft skills are important to any technical job, people who are capable of learning high-level technical concepts quickly can typically learn manage to pick up some of these non-technical abilities, too.

For example, someone who has mastered the skill of mapping protein interactions can probably learn how to give a presentation or properly format an email. If the candidate has the technical skills you’re looking for, give them a chance to learn the rest.

2. Ask the Right Questions

It’s easy to discount a candidate because they doesn’t have the right experience on paper — but maybe you’re not asking the right questions that would help you uncover that experience?

Recruiters often fall into a trap of thinking that because a nontraditional candidate doesn’t have decades of experience in a business setting, that candidate is missing valuable, relevant experience. The truth is these candidates might have an experience even more valuable than years clocked in an industry: the experience of learning new skills quickly.

In addition to being able to quickly learn and process new information and skill sets, many academics have great collaboration skills. People who are used to working in a lab or a classroom don’t typically have authority over anyone, which makes them incredibly comfortable with cross-functional relationships and collaboration. Many candidates won’t put this kind of experience on their resume, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have it. It’s up to you to uncover it.

3. Play the Long Game

Look for long-term relationships. Speed is critical in recruiting, but it’s worth investing time in top talent. You’re going to be hiring for other positions eventually, and your top employees will be your gateway to other highly qualified technical candidates. Treat your prospects like people — not numbers — and they will repay you by referring other superstar employees.

For example, let’s say you hire a PhD-holding candidate on whom most other companies wouldn’t take a chance, and that candidate turns out to be one of your best employees. This high-performer probably knows other people with similar qualifications who might be a good fit for your other open positions. These are candidates you might not find on LinkedIn or the typical job board. By treating your candidates and employees well and playing the long game, you can gain access to talent pools that would be totally closed off otherwise.

You’ll never gain a competitive advantage using the same strategies as the rest of the field, so differentiate yourself when it comes to the recruiting process. The recruitment game isn’t getting any easier, especially when it comes to attracting STEM talent. It’s time to start thinking outside the box.

Isaiah Hankel is founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist.

By Isaiah Hankel