In this article, Ian Harrison (Director, Growhouse Growth Business Ltd and Member of CNM’s ‘People and Skills’ Leadership Board) considers whether the region’s skills gap is made worse by an overemphasis on skills in recruitment processes.

(February 2024)

Go to any workshop, attend any webinar on recruitment and it won’t be long before you are advised to ‘hire for attitude, train for skills’, or the alternative ‘hire for fit, train for skills.’

The principle is simple, teaching new skills is relatively easy, changing people’s attitudes or getting them to fit into a culture in which they don’t naturally fit is a lot more complex and more likely to fail. The principle is reflected in the other piece of advice that emerges regularly from the world of recruitment: “a bad candidate is worse than no candidate.”

As with all sound-bites, the reality is more complex, but with the seeming paradox of rising unemployment among young people and a recruitment crisis, it is perhaps worth unpicking that complexity and uncovering some underlying issues.

The intention behind the encouragement to hire for attitude/ fit is clear. A good organisational culture is hard won and, according to a multitude of studies done by Gallup,[i] underpins productivity, reduces absenteeism, improves safety records, and employee wellness, retention and organisational profitability. Recruiting people who simply don’t fit, or whose attitudes will undermine your culture is simply bad business. With the median cost of hiring an entry level employee standing at £1500 (rising to £3000 for senior managers)[ii] getting your recruitment right is an important priority. As the saying goes, ‘hire in haste, repent at leisure.’

What truly lays bare the simplistic advice is the existence of the skills gap: the reality that a significant proportion of the population lack the skills required by those recruiting for roles. If organisations were really hiring for attitude/ fit, and willing to train for skills, then the skills gap would be an irrelevance.

So, here are 3 reasons why businesses are not hiring for attitude/ fit and training for skills.

  1. Reactionary recruiting – where the employer is reacting to an immediate skills gap in the business – will always require the successful candidate to have appropriate skills. Early stage businesses with minimal budgets will always be reactionary in their recruitment process but this practice is not limited to early stage businesses.

According to research done by the CIPD and Omni RMS, in 2022[iii] only 21% of 1055 HR professionals said their organisation collected data to forecast hiring demands. What is notable about this figure is that it is derived from businesses of significant enough size to have internal HR provision.

  1. Organisations do not believe it is their responsibility to train people for work. We regularly hear the cry on media for our education system to be adapted to a more vocational approach. Whilst this argument has some merit, it also betrays an underlying attitude in which businesses understand it to be the government’s responsibility to train for skills. In other words, the cost of skills training is not seen as an inevitable investment in the future success of the organisation.

The 2023 report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies suggested that “average employer spending on training has decreased by 27% per trainee since 2011.”[iv] This is despite the fact that (according to the CIPD) only 15% of organisations compare the costs of developing versus recruiting talent.

  1. Recruiting for all but entry level jobs will, by definition, require a base line of relevant skills. At the very least, the successful candidate will need the foundational skills that underpin training for the level of the job on offer.

We could summarise these reasons as:

  • Lack of planning
  • Abdication of responsibility
  • The real need for baseline skills

It is astonishing to think that, when it comes to the skills they need to deliver their products or services, nearly 80% of companies are willing to put their future viability in the hands of others.

In this reactive recruitment environment, accompanied by the current skills shortage it is difficult to believe that the concepts of ‘hiring to fit’ and ‘ hiring for attitude’ are anything more than catch phrases. For some they are undoubtedly aspirational but for others, it would appear, they are no more than PR in the competition for applicants.

The very real and unavoidable obstacle to hiring for fit/ attitude is what we labelled the real need for baseline skills. Yet even here there may be room to rethink.

In recent years Pertemps have worked with DWP and one of their long-standing customers to deliver a SWAP programme on customer services. In two weeks of training, they were able to provide participants with the baseline skills to apply for jobs that they would previously have not been eligible for. Of the 12 participants, 4 have found permanent customer service roles.

Without taking away from the value clearly added by the SWAP programme, the fact that a 2 week programme can address a skills gap is a strong indication of how narrow that gap can be.

If we were to break down the skills taxonomy of a customer service role it would probably look something like this:

  • Communication skills (including listening skills)
  • Empathy
  • Problem-solving
  • Product Knowledge
  • Patience
  • Time Management
  • Adaptability
  • Conflict resolution
  • Technical proficiency with specific software and tools
  • Team collaboration
  • Cultural sensitivity

All but two of these skills could be described as ‘soft’ (or people) skills and many people have them without the need for a certificate or qualification. The two that don’t fall under this label (product knowledge and technical proficiency) are likely to be unique to the organisation and will need training for any candidate. Here then, is an example of a skills gap that is created by the recruitment process. An emphasis on skills above attitude that is almost entirely unnecessary.

Even if we were to take our imaginary vacancy up a level to Customer Service Manager, the same problem arises. Simply by adding the word ‘experienced’ to the job description we create an unnecessary skills gap.

Imagine if you had a member of your customer service team who was incredibly competent with customers, who demonstrated the soft skills required for management. The chances are that you would consider that person for promotion to a management role. Now imagine that person works for someone else and is looking at your recruitment advert that is headed with the word ‘Experienced Customer Service Manager.’ Have you created an unnecessary barrier, an imaginary skills gap, that will prevent you from finding a candidate that would have been a great fit and valued contributor to your organisation.

In this second case there is arguably a baseline requirement – experience working in a customer service environment – but the way the employer frames the vacancy can create opportunity or a skills gap.

The over emphasis on skills has a secondary and equally expensive implication for organisations. When our recruitment processes put an unnecessary emphasis on skills we inevitably narrow the field and make it harder to find candidates who are a good fit for our organisation. Combined with the felt pressure to fill the role we become more likely to hire a candidate who is not a good fit.

The problems that ensue will not be limited to the new hire who is likely to require significantly more HR resource. A client I worked with told a familiar story. A happy team into which came a new employee. It quickly became clear that the new employee was not a good fit for the culture of the business. Equally quickly it became clear that the new employee was having a noticeable negative impact on the attitudes and productivity of the team. One or two of the team were quickly brought under the new employee’s spell and began to mirror the disruptive attitudes. Others, uncomfortable with the shift in team culture and behaviour became increasingly unhappy in their roles.

When we speak of retention we often instinctively think of retaining new hires themselves. We also need to be aware that a poorly chosen new hire can negatively impact our ability to retain other, more established, employees.

Hiring for ‘fit’ and training for skills is a worthy aspiration but it needs to be more than a slogan. Whenever possible, employers need to adopt a much more pro-active approach to understanding their future hiring needs. An approach in which they take responsibility for upskilling people to meet their needs. Even when necessity requires a more reactive approach to hiring, there is a need to seriously reconsider the way vacancies are framed. Are we describing the opportunity in a way that unnecessarily creates barriers to people who could become huge assets to our organisations? An over emphasis on skills can lead to hiring choices that adversely affect the organisation in a multitude of ways that go way beyond the need to advertise the post again.

Without denying that there is a national need to address a very real skills gap, is it possible that the gap we see is one made more profound by the traditional, skills based way we approach recruitment and the unwillingness to train people in skills that are easily trained and acquired?



[i] James K. Harter etal, The Relationship Between Engagement at Work and Organizational Outcomes: 2020 Q12 Meta Analysis 10th Edition (Gallup, 2020) p.3

[ii] CIPD. (2022) Resourcing and talent planning report 2022. London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. P.4

[iii] CIPD. (2022) Resourcing and talent planning report 2022. London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. P.8

[iv] Imran Tahir, IFS Green Budget Chapter 9 R277: Investment Training and skills,  (Institute of Fiscal Studies,2023) P.2


Ian Harrison is an executive coach, facilitator and co-author of ‘The Enabling Manager.’ He has developed and delivered leadership training in the U.K., Europe and Africa.

Ian has a particular interest in the dynamics of human interactions. His leadership development work focuses on the nature of authentic leadership. He works with teams and business leaders to enable them to create team environments in which every member can thrive and where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

After graduating from theological college Ian spent the first 18 years of his career as a minister of the church. During that time, he was involved in establishing a number of training organisation that delivered conferences and training in the UK and around the world.

Ian’s 18 years working in leadership in the voluntary sector has given him a clear perspective on the importance of unlocking values-based motivators that enable individuals to contribute most effectively in an organisation.

Having made a significant career change in his 40’s, Ian has a particular interest in the challenges faced by those in mid-life who are looking to re-enter the workforce or to retrain to use their skills in a new context.

Ian is a director of Growhouse Growth Business Ltd.

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