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7/30/23 - How the 'perfect' job candidate has changed

By Joanna York

Traditionally, the ‘ideal’ candidate had a strong pedigree and specific technical skills. But now, recruiters may be more flexible on these strict requirements.

As the pandemic has changed many aspects of how we work and the workplace skills we value, it’s also evolved how companies are hiring new employees. In the past, a ‘perfect’ candidate may have attended a notable school, worked for high-profile companies and had proof of relevant hard skills – tangible technical abilities, suited specifically for a role.

Now, however, experts say many companies are shaking off the old definition of an ideal candidate, and broadening the search to include non-traditional candidates and different skill sets. And in some cases, they seem to be ditching the idea of looking for the singularly perfect candidate altogether.

Although hard skills have traditionally ruled the roost, some companies are moving away from choosing prospective hires based on technical abilities alone. That’s not to say that practical know-how is no longer required – some jobs still call for highly specific expertise, like advanced knowledge of spreadsheets, or being a master of video-editing software, for instance. But now, say experts, some job descriptions are frequently bringing less tangible criteria to the fore, asking for candidates to demonstrate soft skills, such as leadership or teamwork.

The move towards prioritizing soft skills “is a natural response to three years of the pandemic” says Ed Han, senior recruiter at Cenlar FSB for IT roles in the finance sector, based in New Jersey, US. For many companies, the turbulence of lockdowns, adapting to new work norms and weathering a disrupted economy showed the value of retaining employees with skills that enabled them to collaborate with team members, whatever the circumstances.

For potential hires who will work with or manage remote or hybrid employees, communication is particularly high on the list, says Jan Tegze, a tech recruiter based in the Czech Republic, and author of Job Search Guide: Be Your Own Career Coach. He says qualities such as empathy, responsiveness, respect and good listening skills are essential. Ideal candidates also possess adaptability, adds Tegze – a quality that McKinsey and Company research has even shown helps companies hang onto employees longer during periods of upheaval.

The pandemic also changed realities in the hiring pool, as many workers had reduced opportunities for professional development. In this way, de-emphasising hard skills on job ads “is opening up the options for those job seekers who might not, for example, have had the opportunity to attend or complete a four-year degree”, adds Han.

Some job ads are even indicating that job-listing requirements themselves are a formality, by adding notes encouraging candidates that don’t meet the all-stated criteria to apply regardless. This can provide an opportunity for candidates who don’t feel that they are traditionally perfect on paper to put themselves in the running.

However, amid this upside, Tegze advises candidates to be aware that this doesn’t open up the field as broadly as it may seem. He believes this strategy also works to a company’s advantage in a tight labour market, as such notes draw attention and encourage applications. In this way, he says, “companies can get lots of job-seekers into their database while, in reality, they can still be looking for one specific type of person with specific skill set”.

Han says that while many job listings today are encouraging applicants of different backgrounds to apply and de-emphasising hard skills, many also do still value highly specific technical abilities. Ultimately, there will still be candidates that are more ideal than others. And Tegze notes that many of these new ‘check-lists’ will include both soft skills and hard skills, as many companies are unprepared to train new hires on the latter.

But ultimately, he continues, the definition of an ‘ideal’ candidate is broader than it’s ever been. “I really don’t care about a candidate’s schooling or past companies. I care if they have the right skills that the company needs, and the right mentality, meaning the right fit for the company culture.”

Han also welcomes the more balanced approach, as it encourages workplace diversity and, he says, “leads to higher-functioning teams”. “So,” says Han, “I celebrate this evolution.”