Standard skill profiles – chasing white rabbits and other myths

Many employers struggle to articulate and communicate the skills they value most for a given position and this results in a myriad of variations in the vocabulary used for job postings. Today, with the possibilities opened up by (X)AI automation for recruiting processes, many globally positioned recruiting agencies or HR divisions are tempted to ask if AI could provide a quick fix to these struggles, say, by generating a one-size-fits-all skill profile for a given profession. The lack of a common vocabulary among stakeholders in the labor market is of course a hindrance: many job portals are based on keyword matching, which leads to missed opportunities for both jobseekers and recruiters due to differing vocabulary, and AI-based automation struggles with the wording of job postings written to attract talent. This issue can indeed be addressed by employing semantic technologies, which, in a sense, translate the many linguistic variations into a common vocabulary, significantly improving job-candidate matching. However, although such technology can generate standardized vocabulary, this does not mean that it can generate a standardized skill profile for job postings. The pertinent question is, does such a global skill profile even exist? Is there enough common ground in job postings around the globe for a given profession to define such a skill set? Or even in single countries?

JANZZ has analyzed millions of job postings over the years to investigate these questions. To illustrate our findings, let us explore skill profiles for two classical professions, carpenter and nurse. We randomly selected around 250 job postings for each of these professions from five countries in two language regions: United States, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Germany and Austria. Our evaluation shows that there is a vast amount of variation in skills required for individual positions, even in strongly regulated professions such as nurse.

Skills may define jobs. But who defines the skills? A business in one country may not be looking for the same person as a comparable business in another country because the skills depend not only on the specific work to be done, they also depend on cultural or regulatory factors, the educational system and many other aspects. In fact, in one country several people with distinct skills sets may be required to do a job that, in another country, just a single person may already be qualified to do. Strong variations in skill profiles can be observed even within the same region because different businesses position themselves differently in the market. This can be seen not only in the varying demand concerning professional skills, but also in required soft skills, which can reflect a company’s philosophy, team dynamics or client expectations.

Impact of education and work experience

Let us take a closer look at carpentry. Germany, Austria and Switzerland (DACH) have a dual education system, where students can train as apprentices in one of a given list of occupations, including carpentry. The precise (hard) skills and theory taught are strictly regulated and defined by national standards, including those for several specialties that can be chosen after basic training. Anyone seeking to train as a carpenter has little choice but to take this path in these countries. The United Kingdom has recently implemented a fully revised apprenticeship structure with national standards for a growing number of occupations and is developing incentives for employers to hire apprentices. However, even though apprenticeships exist for certain occupations, for any one of these there is an alternative route via college education, which is just as (if not at least as) widely accepted. In addition, as these structures are still very new, the majority of the workforce in such professions did not complete an apprenticeship.

The United States are at the other end of the spectrum in this regard. Apprenticeships do exist, but there is no single set of standards that all employers in the US must follow when designing their apprentice programs. This makes it difficult for employers to assess the training of a prospective employee and may be one of the reasons – apart from a lack of tradition for this type of training – why apprenticeships are still not nearly as widespread as in Europe. This is reflected in the numbers of apprentices per capita: in the UK, Germany and Austria around 2% of the working age population are currently in apprenticeship, and just under 4% in Switzerland – more than ten times the number for the US, which is less than 0.3%.1) So, what does this have to do with a skill profile for job postings? One aspect we observe is that in countries with standardized training, much more emphasis is placed on vocational education compared to work experience. This can be seen by taking a simple count of these criteria as required in job postings.

 

Education and experience – Carpenter

Outer ring: percentage of carpenter job postings requiring given criteria.
Inner ring: percentage of job postings listing at least one criterion in experience and in education.
Center: the number at the center of the chart is the ratio of required experience to required education. A number above one thus indicates more demand for experience than education, and vice versa for a number below one.

 

To state the obvious, if you have completed an apprenticeship, you also have work experience. And if very few workers have done an apprenticeship, then employers will ask for work experience instead. This is also confirmed by our data for nurses. This profession is highly regulated in all five countries, requiring training (practical and theory) according to predefined national standards, and with specific optional specialties. In all five countries, there is significantly less demand for work experience compared to education (see Fig. below). We also see that in postings for carpenters, experience in tools is much more often explicitly mentioned in the US. This may also be a result of the lack in standardized training, where experience in tools is a given.

 

Education and experience – Nurse

Outer ring: percentage of nurse job postings requiring given criteria.
Inner ring: percentage of job postings listing at least one criterion in experience and in education.
Center: the number at the center of the chart is the ratio of required experience to required education. A number above one thus indicates more demand for experience than education, and vice versa for a number below one.

 

Turning to craft skills for carpenters, i.e., hard skills directly related to the trade, we see marked differences in all categories. In the UK and US, demanded skills are scattered across all areas of carpentry, from general over construction and interiors to additional skills from other trades, whereas in DACH, the focus is clearly on general aspects of carpentry with little mention of specific skills. A fully trained carpenter is typically more diversely skilled than one who learnt on the job and thus employable for a wider variety of tasks, which do not need to be explicitly mentioned. By contrast, in countries with less standardized training, carpenters are often restricted to fewer, specific tasks within a job. Notably, apart from laminating, there is no demand for manufacturing skills in the US or UK in our data. This type of knowledge is highly specific to skilled carpentry and requisite in one in five DACH postings. On the other hand, we see some demand for skills from other trades in the US and UK, which is (almost) inexistent in DACH. This is not surprising if we consider that a trained carpenter is less likely to have learnt skills from other trades, whereas a worker who learnt on the job may have acquired any number of other such skills.

 

 

A similar effect can be seen for nurses: there is generally little mention of professional skills in all five countries, and particularly few offers detailing specific skills, ranging from 4 to 10 percent of job postings per country. The focus in this skill category is primarily on specialties and additional tasks, which are not part of standard training and/or experience.

 

Regional differences

There are also other factors that influence the skill profile. For instance, in the UK, soft skills appear to be of little importance in carpentry: less than half of job postings in the UK ask for any soft skills at all, compared to 76% in the US and around 90% in DACH. In the US, the top 3 demanded soft skills are physical fitness, flexibility and overtime, and teamwork (in this order). By contrast, the top 3 skills in DACH are teamwork, working without supervision, and reliability. This shows that employers in the US are typically looking for very different workers than those in DACH.

 

Interestingly, there are also significant differences regarding soft skills for nurses: in DACH, every single job posting demands at least one soft skill, with a median of five, whereas in the US and UK, only 70 and 80 percent of job postings ask for soft skills, with a respective median of one (US) and three (UK). The top 3 skills in Switzerland are teamwork (48%), responsibility (46%) and working without supervision (44%). In the UK, the top 3 are communication skills, a caring personality and motivation – but with much lower demand (40%, 26% and 26%, respectively). Again, we see very different criteria in different countries.

 

Another aspect to consider is regulatory matters and safety standards. In the US and UK, employers explicitly ask for knowledge of safety standards (OHSA and HSE/CSCS card) and a significant percentage expect employers to have their own tools. This is not seen at all in DACH and can be traced back to educational and regulatory differences. Similarly, three in four US job postings specifically ask for BLS or similar certifications for nurses, which are part of standard training in the other four countries and thus not mentioned.

 

Business/industry-specific differences

Suppose we still want to create a standard skill profile. The simplest strategy would be to include any criteria found in at least one job posting. Using our data for carpenters, this would result in a list of 103 requirements, most of which would be completely irrelevant to an individual opening: on average, seven skills are listed per posting, with individual numbers ranging from 2 to 21. For nurses, we would have 94 requirements, with an average of eight skills per posting and a range of 1 to 16.

Another strategy one may consider is to search for a common denominator, for instance, all skills required by at least 25% of job postings in each country. Taking another look at the data above, this leaves us with just two criteria for carpenters: work experience (of unspecified length) and a driving license. Most recruiters would find this unacceptable. In Switzerland, a completed apprenticeship is a must in a vast majority of job postings, whereas in most cases in Germany a driving license is not a requirement. Thus, such a profile would result in many unsuitable candidates in one country and in too few candidates and many missed opportunities in another.

Following this strategy for nurses again yields just two criteria: nursing certification and work experience (in any specialty). Not one soft skill is listed although there is a strong emphasis on this category, with at least 70% of job postings ask for such skills. Moreover, three in four job postings in Germany do not require work experience. Again, this would result in a significant mismatch of candidates to job openings.

Let us pursue the 25% strategy for a single country, say Switzerland. Our standard skill profile for nurses reads as follows:

  • nursing certification
  • work experience
  • care work
  • computer skills
  • responsible
  • stress-resistant
  • communication skills
  • empathy
  • social competence
  • teamwork
  • professional competence
  • flexibility and overtime
  • ability to work without supervision

At first glance, this seems acceptable. However, almost 70% of Swiss job postings ask for professional skills other than generic care work, with more than half demanding specialty knowledge not included in basic nurse training. This means that each individual job posting now needs to be fine-tuned according to the specific opening.

For carpenters in the US we also encounter such issues. Our strategy generates the following skill profile:

  • work experience
  • experience in tools
  • cabinetry and furniture
  • window and doors
  • teamwork
  • flexibility and overtime
  • physical fitness
  • ability to follow plans
  • math skills
  • knowledge of safety practices
  • driving license

As before, this seems adequate at first. However, focusing on craft skills, a worker skilled in cabinetry and furniture or windows and doors may not be experienced in drywalls, roof carpentry or other building structures as this requires a different skill set. Also, a full 80% of job postings require craft skills other than those listed in our profile, and 60% of job postings ask for other soft skills.

Similarly, the only craft skill listed in a thus standardized skill profile for Austria would be assembly and fitting. Yet, many carpentry jobs do not involve assembly and fitting at all, such as seven in ten of the job postings in Austria that require manufacturing skills. In this country, manufacturing techniques are learnt in an apprenticeship with a different specialization and thus, an average assembler/fitter will not have the necessary skills.

Back to square one

These are arguably basic strategies, and a sophisticated AI-based method may deliver slightly better results. Yet the key issue identified in our analysis remains unresolved: there is an immense amount of variation attributable to national and regional differences, and also resulting from differing requirements for positions across different industries and even within individual businesses. Our data show that any globally defined core profile must therefore be adapted to the country (e.g., to accommodate educational, regulatory and cultural factors), then to the industry (construction, manufacturing, etc.), to the individual business (e.g., company culture), and finally, to the individual position. Which brings us back to individual job postings. Thus, a standard skill profile simply does not exist.

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1) Own calculations based on figures from OECD and national statistics offices

 

Workers age 50+: ready for the scrap heap or worth their weight in gold?

Systematic discrimination against workers age 50+ in candidate selection – or why this is not the issue in the vast majority of cases.

Read on, the following article will not just repeat the same arguments as always on this particularly important topic, which are usually based on assumptions and politically deadlocked positions. We will provide you with new, statistically relevant and number-based arguments that allow you to take a different view on the challenges of older workers and, to the same extent, on our education policy. But let us start at the beginning.

The statistics bring it home…

Suppose we want to fill a new position. We already have 80 suitable applications and CVs, including ones from young professionals, experienced professionals and applicants age 50+. Let the selection process begin. We sort by relevant skills and competences, professional experience, education and training, language skills, specializations, industry knowledge and so on. We reduce first to five, then to three candidates, who we invite to an interview. Importantly, we hide all personal data during selection, or rather, we make a non-discriminatory first selection using XAI.

At the end of this not so fictitious example and after many long, personal interviews and assessments, we choose a 27-year-old, multilingual university graduate with almost three years of experience in the right industry and the best matching scores in the areas of hard skills/competences and soft skills, communication skills, appearance, etc. A surprising choice? Hardly. It is rather the logical result of a structured, transparent and above all fair selection procedure. Remember, the hiring HR professionals were not aware of age, gender or salary expectations for the first steps of the selection. It would have been more of a surprise if one of the 50+ candidates had won the race – for statistical reasons alone: in the total of 80 applications there were only seven more or less suitable 50+ candidates, i.e., less than 10%.

Imagine that a 54-year-old, less qualified candidate had been chosen, contrary to the robust findings of the structured selection process and results of the interviews, primarily because of his age. This would have been just as discriminatory as an inherent preference of male candidates or favoring the candidate with the necessary connections.

Let us explain in more detail why this choice is logical and fair, and why other, similar selection processes usually have just as little to do with age discrimination or with the argument that companies avoid recruiting 50+ candidates for financial reasons.

There are always better qualified candidates out there. No matter how good yours are.

Well-trained, enthusiastic and experienced engineer, 50 plus, seeking – this is a scenario that has become bitter reality for many older workers in recent years. In our example, by the way, six of the 80 applicants were ahead of the 50+ candidate, having even better qualifications, mostly just recently acquired or refreshed, and higher degrees. There was only one criterion, ‘relevant experience’, on which he came in fourth, just narrowly missing the interviews for the final selection round. In short, the candidate was not unsuitable or rejected just because he was over 50, there were simply better-suited and objectively better qualified candidates for the position.

By the way, according to some of the more serious statistics, jobseekers in many industries in Switzerland already start facing more difficulties when they reach their mid-40s. At this age, the chances of finding a suitable job fall significantly in more and more cases. Despite an exceedingly positive economic environment and stable labor market with an exceptionally low unemployment rate before Covid-19, even highly qualified older workers were concerned about potential, longer-lasting unemployment. The fact is that once the older generation have lost their job, it is difficult for them to find a new, equivalent position. This is primarily because, usually for the first time in many years, they will have to face up to the ever increasing, ever better educated, multilingual competition and keep pace with younger, highly motivated and equally ambitious applicants.

To be very clear at this point: The sad exceptions do exist, companies with a real prevailing ‘anti-50+ policy’. Such a policy makes no sense at all, economically or otherwise, but there have always been companies that could neither calculate nor had a reasonable and fair personnel strategy. However, the real reasons why people in their 50s are increasingly faced with unemployment are complex and found on both the employer and employee side.

Last relevant vocational training: commercial apprenticeship 1981

The current labor market is becoming more and more specialized and is exposed to ever-faster technological change in many sectors, not only because of advancing digitalization. There are several reliable surveys that consistently show that, by the age of 30, more than 60% of knowledge acquired up to that point is already outdated or no longer relevant for professional progress.

In recent years, digital technologies, channels and thus evolved processes have come to the fore, rendering tasks more demanding and complex, especially for older workers. For example, compare the top 20 required skills from 2008 and 2018, say, on LinkedIn or in similar surveys. The ongoing transformations and the digitalization of competitive skills are quite dramatic.

This is just one of the reasons why training is being invested in everywhere and more than ever. That is a good thing, we all fought for this privilege for a long time and have repeatedly stressed the importance of good, modern education for every economy. Access to education as affordable as possible for all. A whole variety of tailormade educational models, dual education, vocational baccalaureate, semester abroad, MBA, CAS and much more. Comparing the manifold possibilities of today’s educational landscape, not only in Switzerland, with the options that were available at the time of our 50-year-old engineer, there have been huge, mostly positive developments – consistently and in all areas and aspects that are key to a successful professional life. Moreover, ambitious young professionals will gladly pay, or rather invest, 60000 US dollars and a few months of their lives for an MBA or tens of thousands of francs for challenging advanced training, certifications or postgraduate studies in order to have a better chance in the competition, which is becoming tougher for younger workers as well. We must all be continuously willing to make such investments, including the time commitment and renunciation of family life and leisure time ensued. Lifelong learning and continuous training are more than just buzzwords.

To keep up with a constantly evolving labor market, it is absolutely necessary to continuously train and extend our skills and competences, on average every 5 to 7 years. Work experience is certainly valuable, but that value is diminishing in more and more areas because the businesses they are based on are often outdated after a few years or have disappeared completely from the market. The ever-accelerating cycles of innovation in basic processes, tools and market and production mechanisms render the by far largest asset of experienced workers increasingly obsolete in comparison with younger, often better trained co-applicants.

The problem for the 50+ generation is that their good education was completed many years ago. Their knowledge, should they need to transition from a familiar and well-known environment to a new field of work, is thus no longer up to date.

Also, many 50+ applicants list only a few, if any, current training courses on their CV. For instance, a TOEFL test from 1993 may be the last entry under ‘languages and communication’, hidden among an abundance of in-house courses and trainings with lavish certificates of little meaning or relevance to a new position. This can be confirmed statistically by parsing and carefully evaluating large quantities (several million) of anonymized CVs: on average, the last relevant qualified formal training was completed 11.2 years earlier for 50+ candidates in Switzerland. In cases of successful professional reorientation or re-entry into a profession, it was several years less. As a reminder, the iPhone as the first actual ‘smart phone’ was launched almost exactly 11 years ago. Several other, significant digital processes and tools have followed since – at ever-shorter intervals.

In such cases, companies cannot be blamed for not considering a 50+ applicant for the simple reason that younger applicants are statistically in the majority and are moreover better qualified or have more up-to-date competency profiles. It would therefore be particularly important for older jobseekers to continuously adapt their strengths and qualities to technological change (whether we like it, want it or not…) and to consider continuous, targeted further training or even reorientation. Self-commitment is called for and this is not the responsibility of employers.

Know-how and relevant competence profiles beat experience.

Another reason why older applicants’ dossiers often end up on the rejection pile is the number of years of service. Applicants who have worked in the same department, company and industry for 20 years have specific work experience but often lose touch with the rapidly changing professional world outside the company. However, this long-term, one-dimensional experience is not the main obstacle in itself: it is often more likely the fact that the applicants’ profile is strongly tailored to their former employer and their qualifications are too limited or they are too specialized, having spent many years in the same function with similar tasks. As a result, flexibility and new professional opportunities are often deemed difficult. A new employer would need to invest in thorough onboarding and possibly in retraining. Of course, this may be necessary for a younger applicant as well. However, it may greatly devalue the importance of acquired professional experience in the competition with other candidates. Even if relevant work experience is still very important in general, its importance has diminished in a fast-moving and even faster changing economy. Ten years of experience are no longer twice as good and meaningful as five. Or rather, only if the competence profile has been developed in parallel with experience gained and according to the latest requirements. Unfortunately, this is exceedingly rare, as the data from the many parsed CVs clearly show.

Protect a lack of qualifications?

Lately, there have been repeated discussions about special protection against termination or special quotas for over 50s, in the hope that this constantly growing problem will be mitigated in the long term. But are these ideas not extremely unfair and discriminatory towards younger and usually better qualified workers? Workers who are already severely disadvantaged when it comes to major topics such as retirement provision, and thus are already proving more than enough solidarity with older workers.

Such an approach leads to unacceptable discrimination against younger generations by protecting less-qualified applicants. Not only that, such a rule would also mean that current 50+ jobseekers may no longer be recruited because employers fear that they will not be able to dismiss them. This type of reaction can be widely observed in countries with rigid employee protection laws such as Germany and France, where, as a result, many employers strongly favor fixed-term over permanent contracts. Special protection against termination is thus not a solution, it is a fallacy.

Another idea aimed primarily at mitigating the consequences of systematic age discrimination is the bridging pension (rente-pont). But if that is not the driving factor behind long-term unemployment of older workers, then this will just amount to yet another instance of discrimination against younger jobseekers. Instead, older jobseekers should be trained – many of them barely know how to apply for an opening. Looking at their CVs, you immediately encounter the showcase syndrome: instead of listing relevant skills, the document is adorned with information of no relevance whatsoever such as obsolete programming languages learnt 20 years ago. As a consequence, such an applicant will often seem desperate and insecure, not like a proud, promising new employee who will support the department and enhance it.

So why hire over 50s at all?

Too expensive, too little professional expertise, too inflexible – these are classic stereotypes older employees are branded with. True, the younger generation is usually more flexible and mobile in terms of time and place of work. Sell my beloved house after twenty years and move far away to another city or canton? No thanks. The reality that wages automatically rise with increasing work experience and age is another fact that is never questioned and rarely discussed publicly. And yet, this is another point where performance should be assessed rather than age. Why not earn the most when we are at our most performant and our expertise is its most comprehensive and up to date?

And finally, young jobseekers often also boast more extensive language skills and are, for the most part, much more IT-savvy. However, a few arguments speak in favor of the older generation: they have a high sense of duty and responsibility, very often have a positive attitude to work and are usually regarded as balanced and notably more consistent.

Anyone who now thinks that these issues can be reduced with anonymized AI-based application procedures is completely wrong unfortunately. These procedures do not focus on the person, but on relevant skills, current education and training, language skills, industry knowledge and specializations. An evaluation of various applicant selection processes in a wide range of occupational groups and industries has shown that, in fact, (with the exception of select management positions) the pool for the next round usually contains a significantly smaller proportion of 50+ candidates than in conventional selection procedures. This in turn proves that it cannot be due to the age of the candidates because all personal characteristics such as age, gender, origin, etc., were fully disregarded in the selection process and thus played absolutely no role in the matching and ranking, which formed the basis for the interview invitations.

We must therefore find other strategies. The key is ‘to be found’ instead of ‘to search’. Positions tailored to over 50s are often not found in job postings. However, there are technological tools that ignore these common prejudices against older employees. Machines decide on the basis of matching data points. They do not know discrimination against age, gender, ethnicity, etc. Older applicants should utilize this opportunity, especially to find out what they can draw on to increase their chances. These tools also give very objective and sober answers to many questions such as how many matches do I really get with my current qualifications? Where are my personal skill gaps? In the mind of the machine, there is no ‘I didn’t get the job, wasn’t even shortlisted just because I’m over 50. Sure, that figures…’

Using these tools, employment services, recruiting companies, job portals and others can make attractive employment proposals to 50+ talents, but also pinpoint individual placement challenges. For a gap analysis, feel free to ask for help at info@janzz.technology