Workforce Ready Skills

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Workforce Ready Skills

Workforce ready skills are something every business wants and needs – the ability of employees to hit the ground running as new hires and the ability to anticipate problems and quickly solve them before they hit the fan. But what’s the best way to bring such competencies onboard? Today’s guest shares what often goes wrong with during the interview process, the types of questions that can lead to unwanted information, what to ask instead, and how to improve it your interviewing skills with free resources that are readily available.

What You’ll Discover About Workforce Ready Skills (highlights & transcript):

  • Yellowwood GroupWhat are workforce ready skills. [1:45]
  • How workforce ready skills impact growth, especially for small businesses. [2:30]
  • How the interview process often doesn’t uncover whether a person is fit for the job. [3:08]
  • How the interview process gets biased. [4:36]
  • Two questions to avoid when interviewing job candidates. [5:30]
  • How to objectively reveal a candidate’s workforce ready skills. [6:17]
  • Three things every employer can do to identify workforce ready skills when hiring. [11:53]
  • Free resources that can improve your hiring process and help avoid legal liability. [13:10]
  • And much more.



Hanna Hasl-Kelchner: [00:00:00] Workforce ready skills are something every business wants and needs the ability for employees to hit the ground running as new hires and the ability to prepare for the evolving and emerging marketplace needs. But what’s the best way to develop and implement an employee growth plan? My next guest has some answers for you.


Announcer: [00:00:23] This is Business Confidential Now with Hanna Hasl-Kelchner giving you the inside scoop on how to ignite more business success by doing the right things in the right way.


Hanna: [00:00:41] Welcome to Business Confidential Now. I’m your host, Hanna Hasl-Kelchner, and today’s guest, Olalah Njenga is an award-winning entrepreneur, an accomplished business strategist and an advocate for small business economy. Olalah’s public sector roles include the Leadership Council for the National Small Business Association and the Leadership Council for the National Federation of Independent Businesses of North Carolina. She also holds a governor-appointed seat as the commissioner of Small Business on the North Carolina Works Commission, representing the commerce and workforce interests of nearly 900,000 North Carolina business owners. Olalah is a trusted small business source for media, including the BBC, NPR, New York Times Marketplace, Fox and local ABC, NBC and CBS affiliates. And today she’s going to be sharing how businesses can prepare employees for tomorrow’s jobs with workforce ready skills. Welcome to Business Confidential Now Olalah.


Olalah Njenga: [00:01:43] Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.


Hanna: [00:01:45] Well, I’m excited to have you here because that phrase workplace ready skills, it’s a great catch all phrase. But I’d love you to explain it so that we all understand what you mean by it. And we’re all on the same page.







Olalah: [00:02:00] I appreciate that opportunity. So in the past, we’ve thought about the workforce in terms of soft skills and hard skills or what some people call technical skills. And what’s really kind of happened within the past decade is that there’s been this realignment, if you will, where skills are no longer either/or. It’s really an “and” so combining those two skills sets together now becomes this more ubiquitous term around workforce READY skills. And it’s a combination of competencies and capabilities, some of which might be industry specific, but many are not. Where a person is really ready for that role, whatever role they’re hired into from day one, they’re actually bringing to the table the competencies and capabilities necessary to do that job the day they get started. And that’s what makes them workforce ready.


Hanna: [00:02:57] All right. So but isn’t that’s what the interview process is all about. What’s different now compared to what people had been doing all along?




Olalah: [00:03:08] Well, there’s a couple of key differences. Interviews don’t always uncover whether or not a person is fit for the role fit, meaning that the competencies and capabilities are there, the aptitude is there, the willingness is there, and the motivation is there to do the job. Sometimes interviews are very biased. Interviews will often say, “Oh, I feel like I’ve known that person for years.” And if you look at their review notes, many of the questions around the competencies of a candidate were never even asked because some people are just really good at interviewing, even though they might be terribly incompetent at the job. So in straight interviewing the way that we’ve always done it, even with test taking, it’s not always the most accurate measurement of whether or not a person truly has the competencies to perform well in a role.


Hanna: [00:04:04] Let’s explore this idea of competencies. What should people be looking for so they don’t have biased interview questions.


Olalah: [00:04:15] So on the employer side.


Hanna: [00:04:16] Yeah. On the employer side.


Olalah: [00:04:17] OK, because as you can imagine, you might be looking for something very different if you’re on the candidate’s side. I’m trying to understand whether or not an employer really has developed this list of competencies and capabilities. So I just wanted to make sure I had some clarification.


Olalah: [00:04:36] So on the employer side, making sure that interview questions do not have answers that can be easily skewed, really having more than one set of eyes take a look at the questions and ask the question of everybody who’s participating in that process “Can an answer be derived irrespective of gender or race or experience above a certain amount or age?” And so really kind of fleshing out, if you will, any question that might lead you to an answer to take you down with a different set of questions that have really nothing to do with whether or not a person has what it takes to perform in a role. And usually those biases get kind of brought to the top when more than one set of eyes looks at the set of interview questions.




Hanna: [00:05:30] That’s interesting. Can you give me an example? Because that sounds . . . I understand the theory, but if I wanted to put that into practice, I mean, can you give like, one question where somebody could wind up with skewed answers?


Olalah: [00:05:46] Actually, I’m going to give you two for the price of one.


Hanna: [00:05:50] Wow!


Olalah: [00:05:50] Because they are the two most popular questions.


Hanna: [00:05:53] OK?


Olalah: [00:05:53] And they do absolutely nothing in terms of being able to eliminate competency or capabilities. The first question is, what’s your biggest weakness?


Hanna: [00:06:05] Oh, gosh.


Olalah: [00:06:07] The second is, what’s your greatest strength?


Hanna: [00:06:10] Yeah. And how often do those questions get asked? All the time. Right?


Olalah: [00:06:14] ALL THE TIME.


Hanna: [00:06:14] OK.




Olalah: [00:06:17] Because there’s so many ways that that the answer can be presented. So there is no context for a question like that. A more efficient and even effective question would be to give a candidate a scenario that has happened in that workplace, maybe in that division or that department, and say this is the scene that happened last week and this was the challenge that was presented. Can you walk me through how you would solve this challenge? Can you share with me the thinking that you would put into remedying a situation like this?


Olalah: [00:06:55] Because in telling the interviewer how you’d solve a problem you’re disclosing in a very objective way, what your strengths are, how you think and whether or not you really look at challenges the same way another candidate might. That ability to look at a challenge and be proactive about a solution might be tantamount to that role. And you haven’t even gotten that far in the interview in question yet to being able to posture a question in a better way, giving a candidate an opportunity to answer in a way that is meaningful to that role really levels the playing field for every candidate who will be asked the very same question.


Hanna: [00:07:37] And it might be really illuminating for the employer as well, because maybe they didn’t come up with a good solution and now here’s somebody who has one.




Olalah: [00:07:45] Which I love that you’ve pointed that out because one of the biggest areas of capability that I see trending, especially in the past couple of years, is we used to talk about people having good problem-solving skills. Well, I’ve seen a real elevation of that to, it’s not just good enough to solve problems, but really employers want to know about the problem-solving alternatives. So when you look at a problem to be solved, are you always going to what feels and looks like the obvious remedy or are you bringing two or three solutions to the table to say, well, how about we try this? And then if that doesn’t go as anticipated, I’ve got a plan B and I’ve got a plan C. That’s a real migration about a skill that we kind of throw around. I think in a very haphazard — we like, “Oh, the job requires great problem solving.” Well, what does that mean? That means something very different to someone, let’s say, who might be an expediter at a McDonald’s franchise versus someone who might be an administrative assistant at a landscaping company. Solving problems looks very different. But the analytical thinking and the ability to come up with solution alternatives, that’s what’s really going to impress that interviewer when they’re trying to decide, does this person bring something unique and valuable to the company?


Hanna: [00:09:14] Definitely. And I could also see where people’s experiences bring a different set of eyes to how the problem is framed and also what the potential solutions are, which is the strength of diversity, which so many people talk about, but I think sometimes pay lip service to.


Olalah: [00:09:30] Absolutely. In fact, one of the things I wanted to share with you is when we look at competencies in the macro sense, a lot of people think that it can be limited to those, quote unquote, “soft skills or hard skills.” But the truth of the matter is that on the employer’s side, when you’re interviewing candidates, you want to look at whether or not that candidate has a real understanding about cultural competencies and a sensitivity to it. In the same way, you’d want to look at whether or not that person has digital competencies or even social competencies or communication competencies.


Olalah: [00:10:06] So there’s a real broad stroke in terms of being competent and being workforce ready. There’s a very broad strokes that you can take. And for every industry, some of those competencies might be more important in a day to day basis compared to others, and some may be the competencies that they would only have to draw upon maybe when a problem is presented or an opportunity, depending on which it is, whether it’s an opportunity to grow in the company. And now you’re presented with a whole different basket of ways to look at things: problems you have to solve, ways to interface with people. So I would really like to see more broad language around the idea of what makes a workforce ready candidate more competent across these very different areas that are going to be absolutely necessary as we continue to up level the workforce across the United States.




Hanna: [00:11:04] Well, that makes a lot of sense. But I can imagine that there would be some small business owners who are listening right now who are saying, I don’t have time for all of that. I’ve got a business to run. I’m worried about making payroll next week. I’m just looking to find employees that can deal with these day-to-day tasks to help run the business. Do small businesses really have the luxury of developing workplace ready skills in their workforce? Isn’t it more for a medium or large size company?


Olalah: [00:11:34] Not necessarily. I believe, you know, as I speak I am one. I speak to them on a daily basis. And many small business owners have figured out that they need the same types of skill sets as medium to large, even to enterprise size employers.




Olalah: [00:11:53] The difference is the screening mechanism. So maybe in a large company you may have the luxury of a three or four-person panel to go through that screening process with a candidate. With the small business owner it might be that one touch with that small business owner. And so what I’ve seen and I’ve certainly experienced in my own firm is getting much more laser focused about the interview questions and really kind of knowing in advance. What are some of the remarks, what are some of the comments? What is some of the language that you’re listening for a candidate to say that let you know? Yeah, this person really does understand the nature of the beast, the types of scenarios that come, you know, day in and day out. And this person can really be ready on day one, so they’ve understood that they’ve got to screen better, that they have to ask more potent questions and that it’s OK to slow down the hiring process so that you really do get the person that can contribute from the moment that they walk in the door, that you don’t have to spend so much of the owner’s time really grooming that person and essentially paying for their learning curve.




Hanna: [00:13:10] What’s the best way for somebody to find out what those buzzwords are, those phrases? The better question? You gave a great example at the beginning of our conversation about how to phrase the question that can get at strengths and weaknesses without asking what are your strengths and weaknesses, because everybody’s got a canned response for that. Where would they go to get some guidance on that? Because people in a startup mode, somebody is a great engineer for example, they’ve got a scientific background. They don’t have an H.R. background. Doing a lot of interviewing wasn’t necessarily part of their experience when they were working for somebody else. And now they’re on their own. They’re doing everything from taking out the trash, to coming up with strategic plans, to trying to get financing. And now they’ve got to interview somebody. OK, what else can we pile on here? Right? And, you know, everything takes . . .


Olalah: [00:14:06] There’s a couple of places . . .


Hanna: [00:14:07] OK. Good. Where?


Olalah: [00:14:09] Ok, so the first is we tend to underestimate our own peer group, but our own peer group is a great source of what not to do, is what I really like to say. They may not be helpful in saying you absolutely must do this and you absolutely must do that. But what they are super great at is telling you, “Oh, my gosh, if I had to do it all over again, I would absolutely have done this or I would have never done this.”


Olalah: [00:14:32] So starting within your own peer group, especially if you’re in an industry that has an association or organization, definitely a great place to start. So that’s kind of number one.


Olalah: [00:14:43] Number two, every community college that I know of across the United States has some division or department that does outreach with employers, whether it’s called Employer Leadership or if it’s called workplace out force (sic). You know, every community college calls it something a little bit different, but the nuts and bolts of it are essentially the same. Those centers, the people who work in those divisions and those departments have a real unique understanding about what their students — because a lot of those community college students, they’re not, you know, 19-year-old, many of them are returning students who are adults. Many are taking continuing education. Many are going back to community college for additional credentialing. So there’s kind of a mixed bag, if you will, not to sound negative, but you can get a real broad section of the student body at a community college.


Olalah: [00:15:44] Many of those business professionals who are in those departments that have that interface, they can tell you what some of those really important scenarios need to look like, what those questions need to look like, how to phrase things in such a way that keep you from being sued, because this is a huge thing. There are many small business owners to this day, despite the amount of information that’s available, who are continuing to ask questions that can potentially get them sued. They just cannot ask certain questions.




Olalah: [00:16:15] And to that point, the question that will get you in the most trouble is asking someone, tell me about yourself, because most people aren’t thinking work. Initially, they’re thinking “me.” So they start off with, oh, I’m married or I’m just got recently divorced or, oh, I just had a baby or just relocated because my girlfriend broke up with me. And all of a sudden you go kind of down this rabbit hole because the candidate thinks you want to get to know them and the employer doesn’t know that they’re really setting that candidate up, which is ultimately setting them up to ask leading questions that are simply not just inappropriate, but actually illegal.


Hanna: [00:17:01] Yeah, that can get you into some trouble.


Olalah: [00:17:06] Not that small business owners need any more trouble to get into, but it’s an easy it’s an easy trap to fall into. And I hear it all the time. And so peer groups reaching out to community colleges, going to places like your small business and technology development centers, there’s many of them across the country. So in all of these things are free.


Olalah: [00:17:28] So I want to make a point of saying, if you’re a business owner and you’re looking for a way to be able to deepen your human resources acumen, become a little more savvy about what you can ask, what you can’t ask, get some help about questions that would be appropriate to illuminate competencies and capabilities in an objective way across the entire candidate pool.


Olalah: [00:17:50] You can tap into all of these resources, including your career centers across the country. Some of them call them workforce development centers. We call them here in our state career centers. But every state has these resources available to employers at zero cost and which is phenomenal. So there really is no excuse, especially for a small business owner, especially for an entrepreneur or startup company. There’s no excuse to get caught, you know, in that HR, you know, hamster wheel. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know what I’m doing because the resources are plentiful and they cost absolutely nothing.


[00:18:30] Yes, that sounds very budget friendly. It should fit any budget and it just takes a little time to invest. But it sounds definitely like it’s a very smart investment because it’s an investment in protecting your liability and risk management, but also and being able to have a better workforce. But . . .


Olalah: [00:18:51] Absolutely.




Hanna: [00:18:52] . . .I’m curious, Olalah, what do you think has been holding companies back from having a workforce ready skill set among their employees in the past? Because you say the need has become heightened. But why? What’s going on and what’s kept us from not being smarter sooner?


Olalah: [00:19:15] So based on my experience and some of some of the leadership roles where I have some level of input or we’re in a position to receive some feedback, I think that this switch, if you will, has more to do with the fact that. Many companies hire employees to solve the immediacy of problems. So this department is short staffed. We need to hire some people. This person is going out on maternity leave. We need to get a replacement. And so when you look at talent in an organization as an acute problem, then you just keep backfilling those roles, capacity or production changes, things like that. You just keep filling the role.


Olalah: [00:20:08] What has happened and what I’m thrilled about is actually something that is quite near and dear to my heart is that employers have started to figure out that they absolutely must hire people who can help them solve tomorrow’s problems today. And so that has changed how employers not only hire, but how they screen, how they roll out training and development internally, how they look at promotion and eligibility for promotion, and what their leadership development pipeline really looks like. Who’s next in line if so-and-so does this? Or who’s next in line if the business goes this way?


Olalah: [00:20:51] So business owners and executives at larger companies have really started to pay attention to the fact that constantly solving today’s problems today means you’re already behind if you’re not intentionally trying to hire people who bring to the company a level of insight, intelligence, experience, education, credentialing exposure that can help you solve tomorrow’s problems and not just only solve them, but he anticipates tomorrow’s problems and then solve them. That’s been the shift Hanna.


Hanna: [00:21:29] Wonderful! I’ve always been in favor of being proactive and looking ahead instead of constantly in the rearview mirror because it always catches up with you eventually. So I thank you so much for clarifying workforce ready skills, providing some insight as to what employers need to do in order to elevate their own hiring practices and make it a reality. Thank you.


Olalah: [00:21:59] Thank you for having me.


Hanna: [00:22:01] That’s our show for today. Thank you for joining me. If you’d like to learn more about today’s guest, you can go to our Web site at It’s got a lot of other powerful information and resources available to help your business grow. So be sure to check that out. The Web site again is


Hanna: [00:22:22] I’m Hanna Hasl-Kelchner. And you’ve been listening to Business Confidential Now.


Have a great rest of the day and an even better tomorrow.

Guest: Olalah Njenga

Olalah Njenga

Olalah Njenga is an award-winning entrepreneur, an accomplished business strategist and Founder of the Yellowwood Group, as well as an advocate for the small business economy.

Olalah’s public sector roles include the Leadership Council for the National Small Business Association and the Leadership Council for the National Federation of Independent Business of North Carolina. She holds a governor-appointed seat as the Commissioner of Small Business on the NCWorks Commission representing the commerce and workforce interests of nearly 900,000 North Carolina business owners.

Olalah is also a trusted small business source for the media including BBC, NPR, New York Times, Marketplace, Fox and local ABC, NBC and CBS affiliates.

Related Resources:

Contact Olalah and connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

You might also enjoy Olalah’s earlier interview on Government Business Programs Every Smart Entrepreneur Needs to Know About.

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