How to Identify High-Potential Candidates

In today’s challenging labor market, companies are struggling to find job candidates with the right experience or the relevant skills – according to a report from CareerBuilder, 45% of employers have jobs they can’t fill because they can’t find qualified candidates.

But the world keeps spinning, and those jobs need to be filled whether or not the “perfect” candidate is available. Many companies are making up for the gap by hiring not for skills but for potential. From there, companies can invest in training to get high-potential candidates up to speed, turning green candidates into seasoned, high-performing members of your team.

But this begs the question – what is potential, and how do you actually identify it in your candidates?

Potential: Looking to the Future

Potential is the capacity to develop into something in the future. When it comes to job applicants, “potential” doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with what a candidate has accomplished so far. It’s really about what they could accomplish down the road based on the qualities they already possess.

This implies that you need to do a little bit of predicting. The goal is to predict which candidates will end up succeeding in the future based on what limited information you have about their experiences so far. Fortunately, there are a couple of ways you can identify signs of potential in your candidates.

Soft Skills

In one report, 92% of HR leaders said soft skills were a top priority when finding great talent. Soft skills aren’t as easy to pin down as hard skills. While hard skills represent acquired abilities that someone has learned in the past (like typing or Excel skills), soft skills are more innate, and they relate to things that impact someone’s ability to work with others and perform their job effectively. Some of the soft skills that are most desirable in the workplace are things like problem solving, critical thinking, learning ability, attention to detail, and communication skills.

This also means that soft skills are harder (if not impossible) to train, making it even more important to identify candidates that have these skills up front.

While an interview can be used as an opportunity to get a sense of a candidate’s people skills, another way to highlight these skills is through pre-employment assessments. Assessments can evaluate some of the major qualities like critical thinking, motivation, or conscientiousness by asking questions that indirectly measure them. They can also minimize some of the bias that comes out of the interview process, by measuring soft skills in an objective and standardized way that makes it easier to compare candidates with each other.

(Interested in learning more about soft skills? Watch our on-demand webinar: “Hiring for Soft Skills: 3 Strategies to Find the Best Candidates.”)

Learning Ability

When you hire candidates based on potential rather than previous experience, it’s assumed that your candidates will go through a significant amount of training to get caught up to speed. For this reason, the single most important component of candidate potential may be learning ability. The ability to learn quickly and to apply new information to everyday situations ensures that your candidates will be able to pick up on training fast, reducing the time it takes before you’ve turned the candidate into a full contributor.

Learning ability is a major dimension of cognitive aptitude, which is one of the most predictive factors of job performance. In fact, cognitive aptitude assessments are twice as predictive of performance as job interviews, three times as predictive as work experience, and four times as predictive as education level.

Why do we care so much about prediction? Again, when you’re hiring for potential, you are essentially making a prediction about which candidates will succeed in the future. Often you have to make this decision based on an applicant pool full of candidates who have limited job experience and have had little opportunity to prove themselves in past roles. When faced with sparse resumes, you need to know when you should take a chance on a stretch candidate, and searching for “potential” can guide you in the right direction.