Skills-based hiring is on the rise as even large-scale organizations shift away from “degree-first” recruitment approaches. It’s evident in campaigns like the Multiple Pathways Initiative, where over 80 Business Roundtable members, including Walgreens, American Express, Duke Energy, and many others, have committed to adopting a more skills-centric approach. Companies place greater emphasis on hard skills, rewriting job descriptions to profile what competencies are needed to be successful in a given role.

At the same time, organizations regularly experience change: ERP systems last five to 10 years, cloud tooling enables rapid changes in company technologies, and mergers and acquisitions remain a major business strategy. These and other business vicissitudes mean skills-based hiring must look beyond static hard skills; although it’s useful for a new hire to operate X tool or use Y software, if you expect to change that tooling in two to five years, it shouldn’t be a priority in hiring.

Soft skills, or competencies, allow you to seek out people who can add value in the long term. By hiring for skills that contribute to success in a role rather than for specific hard skills, you’ll reduce the rate at which people “age out” of their position. Additionally, soft skills are often transferrable, which expands employees’ horizontal mobility within the organization.

What are soft skills?

Soft skills encompass a range of behaviors and abilities that contribute to how someone works rather than the work itself. Here, factors like behavior, intrinsic motivation, and emotional intelligence come into play.

Other commonly sought-after soft skills are:

  • Problem-solving
  • Critical thinking
  • Time management
  • Communication
  • Teamwork
  • Interpersonal relationship management
  • Willingness to learn
  • Engagement with work

These skills are critical in a team environment, when learning new skills, and for general employee performance. Some even impact how well you’re able to train someone in the future.

However, unlike hard skills like “Microsoft Excel skills” or “experience with Ruby on Rails,” soft skills are difficult to train. You can introduce someone to ideas like emotional intelligence, for instance, but you can’t change their behavior unless they’re motivated to do so.

Shifting to competency-based hiring means looking for candidates who fit certain roles but are also open to receiving training for the skills they need to succeed in those positions.

You still need concrete skills

Hard skills remain a critical component of work achievement. If you need a senior C++ developer, you can’t get away with hiring someone who has all of the qualifications to succeed in the role but doesn’t know C++.

Therefore, you have to prioritize hard versus soft skills when you hire. That often means creating a matrix, which we’ll elaborate on below.

It’s important to track which skills are transferable between roles. For example, you could craft a general matrix of skills that fit multiple roles in your organization, as a high-scoring candidate will likely remain valuable even if their current role becomes defunct. In this regard, you can use predictive analytics or modeling to better understand how long roles should exist.

For example, if you know you normally change enterprise resource management every 10 years and you’re approaching that mark, you’d know hiring someone to manage that software will require re-training them or replacing them when that time comes. This also holds true for other hard skills like coding languages, tools, and work methodology.

A healthy mix of hard and soft skills is a reliable approach to hiring, but finding that balance can be challenging. Take your time to assess each position’s needs for easier identification.

Role-based skill and competency matrices

Skill and competency matrices define the skills needed for a role as well as how they manifest in that position. They leverage a weight system based on the role’s priorities to measure candidate fit.

As a baseline, you need:

  1. A skills matrix that maps relevant hard skills in each position and their priority level
  2. A competency matrix that lays out how competencies map to success in each role and their priority level

From there, you can balance the two for recruitment purposes based on factors including:

  • Seniority of the role (senior technical people need strong skills while juniors entering a traineeship might not need any)
  • How long that hard skill will be relevant in that role (for example, will you replace the tool in three to five years? Is the employee expected to stay longer?)
  • Prioritization of skills (normally, matrices emphasize hard skills based on how technical the role is)
  • How urgently you need to fill the role
  • Ease of skill(s) training
  • The importance of soft skills (e.g., team leads need good management traits like communication and emotional intelligence)

Prioritization matrices allow you to hone in on what to look for in a potential hire. While you shouldn’t ignore hard skills during the process, if someone checks all of your other boxes, shows valuable soft skills, and can be trained in any missing hard skills necessary for the role, you can confidently bring them on and offer training or coaching. Doing so lets you find a new fit faster, build candidate loyalty, and introduce someone who’s willing to adapt to the needs of the company from the start.


Soft skills are extremely important contributors to achieving your business goals. They enable employees to work together productively, improve communication, promote personal development, and contribute to innovation, creativity, and problem-solving. Although many are seen as “nice to haves” rather than priorities, they can be more essential to the success of a role than concrete hard skills.

Of course, you still need the infrastructure to deliver training as required, whether via online learning portals, direct mentoring and coaching, workshops, or formal education. Offering training for hard skills can greatly expand your talent pools and yield a higher return on your investment in your employees and their development. With the right balance of hard and soft skills, you’ll be able to identify strong candidates that’ll support your company both now and in the long term.