The Paradox of Recruiting Well in Learning and Development

It is a common belief that recruiting learning and development specialists should be based on them holding specific minimum qualifications to prove their suitability for the job role. Whilst we value formal tertiary qualifications, we respectfully wish to challenge this view.

Our team has over 70 people and our learning expert team supports a wide range of blue-chip and federal government, client-based, internal L&D teams across various industry sectors.

Although most of our team have degrees, master’s or PhDs in their respective fields, we have no formal requirements for minimum qualifications if someone wishes to join our team.

Our recruiting pool is our valued L&D network – and our recruitment method is based on attracting the best of the best of Australia’s talent. We get unsolicited applications daily, yet not many candidates will ever cut the mustard.

The challenge that recruiting graduates brings to the business end of L&D work

Whenever people contact us fresh from finishing their formal education course, the main problem is that their practical skills and experiences are 2-5 years behind what the market needs. It could be blended learning, or eLearning design skills, or technical understanding in interfaces, or virtual learning practices in modern, digitalised workplaces.

So, while the candidate’s theoretical knowledge may be excellent, their ability to translate that knowledge into tangible client value is lacking.

Another aspect that is hard to achieve in a formal learning setting is the sheer level of creativity and multitasking the job demands daily. We need the freshest minds to perform well to come up with the umpteenth brand-new, unique scenario around customer service skills, compliance training or operating heavy machinery safely, for example. Rigid, institution-based learning plans and the ticking of pre-determined learning boxes are not conducive to fostering that required level of mental gymnastics.

We need the freshest minds to perform well to come up with the umpteenth brand-new, unique scenario

Rodney Beach

We didn’t notice this paradox for a while in our early stages after founding Liberate Learning. Over time, as we had larger project teams that needed exceptional project acumen and evolving technical skills, the costs of recruiting the wrong skillsets increased considerably.

Are we alone in this situation and can the dilemma be resolved?

In case you’re wondering, no, this type of situation is not unique to our industry. I’ve seen it happen in other industries where keeping up-to-date with tools and tech beats any formal certificate.

So how do we avoid recruiting the wrong people? What do we do differently? Here are three areas of focus for us:

01. Know what’s coming and plan for it

First, we need to clearly understand each team member’s technical skills and what is required for their specialist work activities. We are also responsible for knowing which technology will come in over the coming 2-3 years driven by industry demand, so it’s up to us to set priorities and request these skills in advance when recruiting. This is especially true in our industry where different vendors offer many tools and platforms, and the overall innovation rate is high. We need to be up-to-date across all of them and consider emerging tech to stay ahead of the game.

02. Understand and cater for the complexities of the job field

Second, we need to understand how complex it is for our team members to work effectively in our fast-paced client environment. For example, if clients want to involve multiple stakeholders in a project, we can’t automatically expect them to meet tight review timeframes. However, if our people have excellent self-management skills and use their project management acumen to proactively provide solutions and proven recommendations, it will be easier for everyone to succeed.

03. Be prepared to invest in internal people development

Finally, we need to respect that even people with excellent L&D and technical skills may need substantial upskilling and onboarding in other areas of learning innovation. This is a profound time commitment when talking about long training periods scheduled during working hours. The solution to this issue is not to hire L&D generalists, but to make sure every technical specialist learns what they need to unlearn to then relearn, as quickly as possible.

For us, the key to successful L&D recruitment is to understand how our team works and make the appropriate trade-offs in broad skill expectations. The paradox of hiring freshly graduated learning specialists is that they will appear well educated for a short time, but soon enough you’ll be back to square one. This is because their knowledge and skills may not transfer to real-life projects and the practical application of learning innovation. It’s much better to invest more in onboarding, training and a supportive workplace culture – and spend less on hiring ‘formal’ qualifiers.

If you have any idea how to resolve the paradox, we are happy to hear from you and share ideas within the AITD/NZATD community.

This article originally appeared in Training & Development magazine, March 2022 Vol. 49 No. 1, published by the Australian Institute of Training and Development.