Apparently, there is a skills shortage in the Canadian IT industry. Well, it all depends on what hiring managers are looking for–specific skills or the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn? According to Diana Oblinger, the keynote speaker at UBC’s 2007 e-Strategy Town Hall, the future jobs we are preparing our students for do not yet exist! The world is moving from “command and control” to “collaborate and participate.” To meet that challenge, problem-solving abilities involving pattern recognition and metacognition will be highly sought after. Isn’t it interesting that Google’s approach to hiring talent is to place ads with complex problems, challenging job seekers to solve them? This flies in the face of the common approach requiring a few years of AJAX programming experience, without which the screening database would not even highlight a resume.

How then should employers look for the ability to learn and problem-solve? Instead of having an initial phone screening interview, ask your most talented developer to design an open book test. What problems have been solved in the past year? Recast them in the form of questions. Invite shortlisted candidates to the test. Give them access to the Internet, let them call their friends, refer to manuals, and ask questions of the examiner. The level of difficulty with each progressive question or task should increase exponentially.

The basic aim is to identify candidates’ foundational skills. Beyond that, the most important part of this test is to hear the questions asked by candidates. Those questions will reveal strategies used by candidates to problem solve. The examiner may give hints to nudge people along. Because talented job seekers may interview poorly, the results may be surprising.

On one occasion, a college educated programmer who spoke poor English completed a series of programming problems in 5 minutes when a university graduate was still stumped after an hour. The college guy was hired!

We sometimes get HRDC grants in the summer to hire student trainees. This is usually awarded in the beginning of summer, but after all the best students with the highest grades have secured internships. Using this testing process, we have identified and hired a few promising programmers. Some are children of immigrants who are studying in community colleges and seeking transfers to university in their 3rd or 4th years. One student in particular performed so well that we could not give him enough work to keep him busy.

There are lots of job seekers out there who may not have skills but have talent, who may not have credentials but have the ability and desire to learn, who may not have experience but have innate passion. We’ll talk about passion in the next post–hiring passion!