These Are the Skills Hiring Managers Need to Look for in 2021

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While the past year has uprooted millions of workers and thrown the global economy into disarray, it has also had a catalytic effect on many industries and companies. For example, of all the changes COVID-19 has caused, perhaps the most significant has been a fundamental reconsideration of the way companies find and deploy human capital. From the overnight shift to remote work to the surging importance of soft skills like creativity, how companies build and maintain their workforces will never be the same.

This is a core theme of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) recent Future of Jobs Report, which found that the nature of work will soon be vastly different than it is today. Companies are increasingly recognizing that their workforces aren’t up to the task of recovering from a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and economic shock, which is why they’re focused on finding talent in more rigorous and predictive ways. They’re also investing in training that will help employees cultivate the skills they need for an increasingly digitalized, interconnected, and competitive economy.

As companies continue to evolve in an effort to meet the demands of a rapidly changing economy, their hiring strategies will have to keep pace. With that in mind, here are the essential categories of skills and aptitudes — based on the WEF jobs report — hiring managers should be looking for in 2021 and beyond.

Cognitive Ability Is the Strongest Predictor of Job Performance

In a summary of the research literature on cognitive ability, management psychologists Michael A. McDaniel and George C. Banks observe that “Without any doubt, general cognitive ability is a large-magnitude, robust predictor of job performance.” This is as close to a universally accepted fact as you’re going to find in the research on correlates of job performance, but it’s important to consider the specific types of cognitive ability that are especially relevant today.

For example, it’s no surprise that the WEF report emphasizes problem-solving, the clearest and most concrete expression of all the cognitive abilities cited in the report, such as analytical and critical thinking, ideation, creativity, and innovation. Effective employees bring all these aptitudes to bear on the problems they have to solve every day.

According to a report by the Society for Human Resources Management, there was already a skills gap in the American workforce before COVID hit: 83 percent of HR professionals said they struggled to recruit suitable candidates, and three-quarters of those professionals cited a lack of required skills among candidates as a key obstacle to their hiring efforts. HR professionals reported that, among soft skills, they were most frequently struggling to find problem-solving, critical thinking, innovation, and creativity. As companies attempt to recover from COVID and prepare for the demands of a more dynamic, technical, and competitive global economy, it’s clear that cognitive ability will be more important than ever.

Employees Have to Be Flexible and Ready to Learn

In an era of rapid digital transformation and a level of economic uncertainty we haven’t seen in decades, employees will have to be more adaptable than ever. This means education will be an indispensable element of the workplace in 2021 and beyond, which is why hiring managers need to be on the lookout for employees who are willing and able to learn.

According to the WEF report, 94 percent of business leaders expect employees to learn new skills at work, a dramatic increase from just 65 percent in 2018. Companies also anticipate that 40 percent of core skills will change in the next five years, while 50 percent of employees will need reskilling. This is why companies say they will offer reskilling and upskilling opportunities to more than 70 percent of their employees by 2025.

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A widespread lack of technical skills is one of the reasons education will be so critical in the coming years, so it’s no surprise that WEF identifies “technology use, monitoring, and control”; “technology design and programming”; and “troubleshooting and user experience” as vital skills. Meanwhile, employees who are capable of critical thinking and learning will be able to acquire the technical skills they need on the job.

Emotional Intelligence Has Never Been More Crucial

We often think about skills in terms of lines on a resume, but this is an antiquated understanding of the capacities employees need to succeed in the workplace. According to the WEF report, interpersonal skills like “leadership and social influence” and “active learning and listening strategies” are becoming more and more integral. These skills can be classified under the broad heading of emotional intelligence, or EI.

EI is the ability to understand the emotions of others, manage your own feelings and behaviors, and develop productive relationships. There’s ample evidence that EI can have a powerful positive effect on workforces, including a 2020 study  published in the Journal of Creative Behavior which found that emotionally intelligent behavior from managers is linked to higher levels of positive affect and greater employee creativity and innovation. This is a reminder of the overlap between the skills cited in the WEF report.

The past year has been unprecedented for the global economy. Not only did it force companies to immediately adapt to remote work and other pandemic-driven changes, but it also caused one of the most abrupt and severe economic contractions in decades. That said, 2020 has also been illuminating: We now have a much better idea of what the workforce of the future will look like, and it’s time for companies to start making their hiring decisions on that basis.

Cherie Curtis is CEO at Revelian.

By Cherie Curtis