Skills or passion? It's actually both!

Ian Dyason. 16 May 2021

Credits: 1. Book cover of Cal Newport's book taken off Bookdepository; 2. Quotation from Simon Sinek taken from social media



So what do you hire for, skills or passion / attitude?


You would probably have seen these various types of posts on LinkedIn and other social media. I follow these two authors; Cal Newport is a Georgetown University computer science professor and best selling author of various titles, including Deep Work and How To Be A Straight A Student. I have been a keen follower of his work because they are filled with practical common sense. Many people are also familiar with Simon Sinek, especially after his Start With Why book. My latest Sinek read was his 2014 title, Leaders Eat Last. Sinek is an inspirational speaker and as inspirational speakers go, he sells you ideas that you will either gravitate to or not.


I share my thoughts from a point of view of a very poor hirer... most of the people I have hired have not lasted, and those who have may not have contributed much.

So these two authors stand on either side of the divide, each saying the opposite of the other. This makes one wonder whether there is a truly universal component to look out for in hiring. In this article, I share my thoughts from a point of view of a very poor hirer... most of the people I have hired have not lasted. Only two outstanding hires come to mind and based on that, I share my thoughts. Please feel free to share yours as well.


Regarding experience

I have always said in my webinars that experience may not be a good thing; because we don't know whether the experience is relevant to the current situation or not. Relying on outdated experience may be worse than not having any experience at all because at least in the latter situation, we can focus on building the relevant experience through trial and error. In the case of the former, where we stick to the old and irrelevant experience, we may be leading the business down a very dangerous track.


experience is good, but only when it is totally relevant to the job at hand, and when the skills gained are congruent to requirements.

Don't get me wrong, I am not insinuating that experience is not important. But the over-reliance of experience over skills and attitude may make one fixed in the wrong position. Wait... did I say experience over skills? Isn't it true that an experienced person is skilled in what (s)he is experienced in? Unfortunately, no. A person may have had 4 years of sending out unsolicited email for their corporate business, but that does not mean the person is skilled in mass communication or business development. At best, the person is skilled in sending unsolicited emails, which in today's PDPA age, is totally irrelevant.


Experience can also cause a person to pick up the wrong skills. For example, in construction, there are many ways to short-cut the building process, and save costs. This makes the project cheaper and faster to do; but it certainly might not make it safer! Hiring someone with such experiences in a construction project is tantamount to putting the whole project in jeopardy, including lives.


Hence, experience is good, but only when it is totally relevant to the job at hand, and when the skills gained are congruent to requirements.


It's certainly not about age!

Now, let's say for a moment that the person has had years of relevant experience; that would be a great applicant, wouldn't it? Do you expect this person to be younger or older? That is rhetorical, actually. Yet, in Singapore, there is this unhealthy disdain for older workers. In fact, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) considers workers who are aged 40 and above to be "matured". This is not in line with their own perceptions but the perceptions of the market. Hiring managers seem to discriminate against applicants who are 40 and above. This is totally preposterous! Considering that the life-expectancy in Singapore is one of the highest in the world, at 83.2 years, 40 years is not even mid-life! We can contribute well into our 60s or even 70s! With another 30 more years of economic value, why would hiring managers discriminate against such people? And considering that more experience will be held by people who are naturally older, why do we shun applicants who are 40 and above?


Hiring managers seem to discriminate against applicants who are 40 and above. This is totally preposterous! Considering that the life-expectancy in Singapore is one of the highest in the world, at 83.2 years, 40 years is not even mid-life!

Some people think that older people are more expensive, since they have more debts to service. Others think that they are more stubborn and are not open to learning new skills. Others feel like they will not be able to report to a younger supervisor. And still more think that these people are more argumentative and use their age against others ("I have eaten salt more than you have eaten rice!") While some people may exhibit these behaviours, they are not representative of all the people in this age group. It boils down to their mindset.



What about education?


Elon Musk once commented, "I hate when people confuse education with intelligence. You can have a degree and still be an idiot."

Then there is education. Singapore has a high preponderance of using education level over many other traits of a job applicant for hiring. That is the reason why parents are so anxious for they children to attend university and graduate with a degree - ANY degree. There seems to be this notion that one is intelligent when one has a degree. This cannot be further from the truth. Elon Musk once commented, "I hate when people confuse education with intelligence. You can have a degree and still be an idiot." I don't decry higher education, but I believe it should be a means to an end rather than the end in itself. Granted, some knowledge can only be unlocked at undergraduate or post-graduate levels, but these need to be applied in the industry. If one graduates in Applied Mathematics but works as a salesperson, then there is no relevance and the degree is worth nothing. Yet how many jobs are there in Applied Mathematics? And how many people will be hired in such jobs from a cohort of - say - 100 graduates per year? And with inter-disciplinary education, there may be more people who have had some aspects of Applied Mathematics (engineers, for example), and the cohort size now quadruples in size! How sustainable is that vis-a-vis industry application? In the end, the spillover will search for more generic jobs and compete with those who don't have any relevant higher education in that role. And they may lose out on the job because they have higher expectations than non-graduates.


So is education a good thing? Yes, if it in a direct role in the industry. But it may be a hindrance for those who cannot be hired in the relevant industry and then compete with those who don't have a large education loan hanging over their head.



So it's skills, then?

There is no denying that when one knows how to do a job, one can get the job done. If one does not know how to code in Python or understand how to train the machine learning algorithm, there is no way we can create an AI solution. Yet knowing how to code does not mean that the AI solution will be good. But that is a separate discussion altogether. So the primary element we need to hire for is skill. Yet how often do we test a person's skills especially for generic roles like business development or sales? Do we even know what skills we should be testing for?


What is important is what YOU can do with these qualifications; what tangible skills YOU bring to the job. If you cannot hit the ground running, then someone else who can will be hired.

Herein lies the skills framework for different industries. Skillsfuture Singapore (SSG) has curated many different skills and their component competencies for different job roles. They have helped hiring managers breakdown what to look out for in the hiring process. That is extremely beneficial. But, have you even SEEN the skills framework, much less used it? This is mostly used by training providers to create new programmes to get SSG funding. And then when you attend these courses, you would receive a "Statement of Attainment" (SOA) of the component competencies at that level of job. According to SSG, you can then use these SOAs to show your competency. Unfortunately, no one hires based on these SOAs. One may have undergone weeks and even months of 2-day trainings to collect these SOAs, and may even bundle them into diploma equivalents, but are never really taken seriously by hiring managers. What is important is what YOU can do with these qualifications; what tangible skills YOU bring to the job. If you cannot hit the ground running, then someone else who can will be hired.



So where does this leave attitude and passion?

There are two problematic issues with hiring for attitude and passion; (1) it cannot be seen at the interview table but only in the workplace, and (2) it can only be seen in the future. Since we hire for an immediate need, and not for the potential of a person to meet the need, there is an issue here. Margins are so tight in most businesses that they cannot afford to wait for a person to rise up to the role. Given the choice of a person ready for the role and one who has the passion to learn on the job, a hiring manager will choose the former. This is because (s)he can meet his/her KPIs faster. With workplace learning still woefully inadequate in most companies, and the requirement to contribute as fast as possible, skills are preferred over one with attitude and passion; even if the one with such skills is at the end of his/her runway (limit of potential).


There are two problematic issues with hiring for attitude and passion; (1) it cannot be seen at the interview table but only in the workplace, and (2) it can only be seen in the future.

MOM has acknowledged this problem and they have launched the SGUnited programme during the pandemic. Instead of hiring full time staff, companies are supported to hire people to train into the role. They are given allowances instead of a salary, and these allowances are subsidised by the government in the region of 80% to 90%. So a hiring company can literally "hire" 10 people with attitude and passion for the price of one, and then see who can be converted to full time hire. This is a win-win-win programme for those looking to hire for attitude and passion. But there are logistical issues related to this. Someone needs to conduct training for the people, they have to be provided with IT support, security management, a place to sit, and the list goes on. And since no one is any the wiser if the employer would convert the stint to a full time role, or if that full time job will be accepted by the trainee, there is always hesitancy on both sides. In the end, the hiring manager will still be looking out for skills, and not attitude.



Short-term versus long-term hires


Take care of the short-term requirements of the business by hiring for skills, but also look to build long-term capabilities by hiring for attitude and passion, and put them on a longer development pathway.

So does this mean hiring for skills trumps hiring for attitude/passion? No. There is a need to be more strategic about this. Hiring for skills is a short-term element, and if the person is unable to stretch beyond the skills requirements, then there may be a need to hire others to fill the skills gap. Such a situation may not arise when we hire for attitude. Hence, organisationally, we need to hire for both! Take care of the short-term requirements of the business by hiring for skills, but also look to build long-term capabilities by hiring for attitude and passion, and put them on a longer development pathway. Not all companies have this luxury / capability to have such redundancy when margins are crimped. There are also risks nurturing a long-term hire to suddenly have him/her leave the employment. Since there is no loyalty on both sides of the employment, companies are more wary to hire for development. This will always put pressure on companies to constantly hire for skills, not for passion.