Blog post

How skills-based hiring is solving skills shortages in science and engineering

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4 minutes

Simon Perry, Head of Talent Acquisition at science and engineering firm AWE, explains how his organisation is using skills-first hiring to improve early careers recruitment.

Science and engineering firm AWE recently reached the milestone of being home to 7,000 employees. But with staff losses due to natural attrition and - most significantly - retirement, the business has been having to recruit some 1,200 experienced professionals every year, along with another 400 early career hires (graduates, undergraduates and apprenticeships), just to achieve steady workforce growth. 

It has also meant that the AWE team has had to be creative with its recruitment strategy. 

“We know that we’ve got a skills shortage across many bits of our business,” says Simon Perry, Head of Talent Acquisition at AWE. “But when you use the age-old system of requiring a particular degree from a particular university and with a particular number of years doing a specific role, you’ll probably find there’s only about three people in the country that can do it, and they are already employed and may not want to move!

“So we’ve had to be a little more agile than we’ve ever been before. We’ve thought about how we find people that might be on the periphery of the perfect match, and that are a good fit for our business, and that with some orientation we can teach them the right skills.”

The importance of apprenticeships 

For this reason, apprenticeships are particularly important to AWE, and represent a crucial element to addressing a skills shortage of technical roles. However, recruitment in this area hasn’t always been entirely successful. 

“We were facing a particular tension on our early careers hiring - particularly on apprentices,” explains Perry. “And the tension was that we were hiring young people just out of college who, on paper, looked like a good fit. Yet they would arrive and six months later we’d realise that they weren’t quite the right fit - either they weren’t performing or they didn’t feel like they belonged.”

With 7% of new hires leaving within five days of starting a role, and around a third of individuals leaving in the first year of the apprenticeship scheme, AWE started to investigate the recruitment process and how it was attracting and selecting people. 

AWE concluded that there were multiple issues with the way in which they were identifying and validating skills in the selection process, and that the current approach did not predict the likelihood of being hired, or success in the role. Furthermore, candidates often did not understand the roles they were applying for, or whether they had the right skills to be successful in the role.  

“What we were doing, particularly around apprenticeships, wasn’t working,” continues Perry. “We were hiring loads of people that were joining two, three or four year apprenticeship programmes, and too many of them would leave - so it was a really expensive and inefficient way to do it.”

Identifying what they would like an assessment process to look like, AWE outlined characteristics such as:

  • Each stage should be quick and simple for candidates to complete, and the recruitment team to evaluate.
  • It should enable candidates to be fairly assessed for multiple roles.
  • The solution should promote inclusivity by focusing on skills, and should not lead to adverse impact.
  • It should predict job success and therefore deliver ROI to the business.

Ultimately, the key goals were to reduce the time and cost of rejection at the offer stage, and cut year one attrition

A skills-based approach to recruitment was considered and, after discussions with Spotted Zebra, AWE was impressed by the speed at which this could be delivered. The Early Careers module within the Spotted Zebra ‘Hire’ application promised to define the specific skills needed for success in the role to ensure unbiased, highly-specific selection decisions. Using Spotted Zebra’s unique multi-match methodology, individuals could not only be reviewed for their skills fit with their first choice role, but also to any of the other 17 apprentice schemes that best aligned with their skills.

Furthermore, with Spotted Zebra’s unique Right For model, AWE could identify how well individuals would fit with the organisation and its culture and values, and whether they possess the skills to adapt, change and grow as the role and organisational needs change.

“Looking at that composition of skills and behaviours has been a huge success,” says Perry. “Because we have put in that additional upfront effort into screening out people that aren’t right against those criteria - which is the right thing for them and us - we’ve had a much higher quality of person join our business, and stick in our business.”

How skills-based hiring practices identifies ideal candidates

The solution has succeeded in reducing candidate rejections at offer stage from 32% to 20%‍, while there has also been a huge reduction in year one attrition, from 35% to 10%. 

“The number of people that leave within the first year of joining the apprentice academy has been halved,” notes Perry. “That’s a significant saving for the business and a significantly better experience for those candidates as well, because they’re staying because they want to be here and they knew what they were joining.”

Meanwhile, use of the multi-match methodology resulted in 18 candidates being offered roles who would otherwise have been rejected from the process because their skills profile was not aligned with their first choice scheme.

“Rather than just rejecting a candidate that didn’t meet their first choice we’ve been able to have an informed, data-led conversation with some candidates that we know are a good fit for AWE to explain that while they applied for one role, there is another role that is actually a really great option for them based on their aptitude. So we have been able to recycle these candidates into other undersubscribed roles that before we were using the Spotted Zebra approach we probably wouldn’t have done so. And these are people that are here doing a good job and are sticking - more of them are staying and not leaving in that first year. So it’s very pleasing.”

The success of the candidate hiring project was such that it scooped the Gold Award in Candidate Assessment at the 2022 In-House Recruitment Awards. And with a successful skills-based use cases under their belt, AWE is also exploring the potential of other applications. 

“We’re having to think long and hard about recruitment,” says Perry. “We can’t just keep doing traditional recruitment, we have to look at those non-traditional talent pools. So we’re taking some of our learnings from our early careers hiring and trying, by osmosis, to move that into our experienced hires.

“That means looking at transferable skills. Looking for non-traditional routes, and knowing that if that person has got the aptitude and the skill that we can retrain the nuclear aspect. Because if we always go and look for the perfect unicorn, we could be looking forever because they don’t exist.”

And Perry believes that this is a journey that all organisations, across all sectors will eventually be on. He concludes: 

“All big organisations are going to have to think really hard around the people they need and what skills those people will need. It doesn't matter what sector you're in. Getting better at understanding skills will be a competitive advantage. I'm absolutely convinced of it. Because if you're not utilising those skills, you will be going backwards versus the rest of the world. So all organisations have to wake up to this.”

To learn more about how AWE used Spotted Zebra's Hiring solution to improve recruitment outcomes, download the full case study.