Top Talent Looks Different Today. Here Are the 4 Skills Your Next Great Hire Needs.

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The war for talent appears to be getting fiercer by the day as the U.S. economy stirs back to life in the wake of the pandemic.

Supermarkets are handing out bonuses in their desperation to hire and retain frontline staff; franchise owners at 7-Eleven are pushing the company to drop its round-the-clock service pledge because they can’t find anyone to work night shifts; major cereal producer Post Holdings is grappling with production delays because of a shortage of workers.

A record 44 percent of small businesses said they couldn’t fill open job positions in April, even though the national unemployment rate remains elevated compared to pre-pandemic levels.

In this unprecedented economy, many of the old assumptions about hiring, training, and retention are no longer valid. Both employers and candidates must adapt to the new realities of the job market or risk being left behind.

The 4 Signs of a Great Candidate Today

Perhaps the biggest change is that employers are relying less on traditional yardsticks of qualification, like degrees and direct, relevant work experience. Instead, they want people who have the core skills needed to hit the ground running and the willingness to learn new skills as they go. When I speak to CEOs and HR leaders, they often tell me they’re trying to cut the time it takes for employees to learn new skills from months to weeks or even days. That preference is supported by the growth of short-burst learning options provided by third parties like LinkedIn Learning, Skillsoft, and Udemy.

So, how can employers identify those candidates who have both core skills and the aptitude to continue learning? Here are four specific qualities that employers should be looking for:

1. Virtual Skills

In today’s world, employees must increasingly manage relationships with clients, customers, and even colleagues in the virtual world. The pandemic made video conferencing the go-to means of business communication, and that’s unlikely to change. Employees must now be able to navigate the technology and keep customers and other business partners engaged during virtual interactions. A candidate for a sales role who has a track record of successful virtual presentations will have an important edge over someone who has a solid record but lacks virtual experience.

2. Project Management Skills

Jobs are no longer as rigid as they used to be. As the pandemic showed us, we can no longer expect — nor want — employees to stay in their lanes. Rather, they must be able to adapt to change and contribute to the enterprise outside of their specific job duties. Employees must be able to work across teams and projects and shift focus to keep up with the ever-evolving demands of the modern workplace.

The employees who thrive most in this environment are those with project management skills — like risk analysis and the ability to vet new ideas — or the desire to learn them. The good news is that project management certifications can often be acquired through relatively quick programs, making it fairly easy to teach these skills to employees.

3. Automation Skills

Automation is affecting almost every job, putting a premium on workers who are comfortable with automation technology and able to adapt as the technology advances.

Automation technology is moving so fast that degrees and other qualifications earned as recently as a few years ago may have limited real-world relevance today. Many companies are turning to third parties that can provide quick, focused training that is directly relevant to jobs. Amazon, for example, recently expanded a program with a community college to provide training in robotics and mechatronics to current and prospective employees. It’s part of the retail giant’s plan to invest $700 million in skills training to prepare employees for higher-paying, in-demand tech roles.

4. Soft Skills

Soft skills are growing in importance because they are crucial to a candidate’s ability to be flexible, independent, and open to learning. As an employer today, I want to know not only the candidate’s paper qualifications but also what they have been doing to improve their skills on a regular basis. Has the candidate been investing in themselves? Are they inquisitive and able to ask intelligent questions about the job? Can they communicate effectively? Do they have a proven ability to adapt to new situations and absorb skills quickly?

Employers struggling with the intense competition for talent can give themselves an edge by investing in their employees in these key areas and by lowering their previous expectations for formal qualifications. Job seekers, likewise, will have a better chance of getting that job and building a career if they focus on showcasing their ability to adapt and learn.

Jay Titus is vice president, workforce solutions, at University of Phoenix.

By Jay Titus