Employers Are Overlooking Non-Traditional Candidates And It’s Costing Them

Employers - how many times have you turned down a young candidate due to their lack of “traditional” qualifications?

If your answer is frequently, you’re probably missing out on your next top performer.

The job market has shifted. Twenty years ago someone’s GPA, the university they matriculated from, and the number of years they worked in the industry meant something. Those metrics were the best indicators a hiring manager had because there were no other benchmarks.

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Fast forward to today where the reach of the internet is far and wide. You can learn almost anything online these days, often for free. For example: Yet, according to McKinsey, 40% of companies still cite lack of skills as the main reason for job vacancies. Something doesn’t add up, and we can trace the root of the problem back to the way today’s companies look at prospective hires.

Playing A Losing Game

Everyone wants to hire top talent.

If you’re in the finance world, your ideal candidate is probably someone who graduated with a business degree and a 4.0 from Wharton.

If you need a software engineer, you’re probably eyeing the 4.0 computer science grad from Cal Berkeley or MIT.

But how many of the candidates are returning the favor?

Chances are these types of people are looking at the best companies in their industry. If you are actively seeking candidates with the best traditional credentials, you’re playing a losing game.

The reality is that top companies have so much leverage in the job market, it’s close to impossible for anyone else to compete. If one of the above companies wants a candidate, they have the resources to outbid you.

There is a martial artist named Marcelo Garcia who has been dubbed “the best grappler to ever live.” In the world of competitive martial arts, a fighter’s moves and strategies are considered to be highly confidential - they are only revealed in the ring.

Garcia is noted for taking a unique approach to this. He records and livestreams all of his sparring sessions, essentially showing his competition what he is going to use against them 2-4 weeks in advance. When asked about his methods, Garcia replied, “if you’re studying my game, you’re entering my game and I’ll be better at it then you.” The same principles apply to the job market.

If traditional credentials are your top priority when it comes to hiring, you are missing out on some of the best available talent.

Take my story for example. In 2013, I graduated from Wake Forest with a biology degree, a 2.68 GPA, and a job in healthcare. With the goal of moving to New York and working in tech, I spent the next year teaching myself digital marketing. I even created my own consulting firm.

Several months later, I was fortunate enough to land an interview at Google for a sales role. The process ended up spanning over 10 interviews and 8 months. At the conclusion of each interview, I was told that they liked me but they were “worried that I didn’t have enough industry experience.” Finally, they gave me an offer. Two weeks later, they revoked it because their final hiring committee decided that I lacked the experience and my GPA was too low.

A few weeks later, I accepted an offer from one of Google’s competitors (the one known for making Windows, Office and Surface products). Within 12 months, I was one of the top sales people on the team, despite being the youngest by 6 years and coming from a non-traditional background.

If you want top talent at your company, stop competing with the big fish for traditional qualifications. Instead, focus on top performers who are looking to break into your industry. That is your best chance of scoring a high caliber candidate.

The Disadvantages Of A Cookie Cutter Team

Another disadvantage of hiring from the traditional model is a lack of diverse thinking within a team.

Candidates who attended a top 50 university, majored in your industry, graduated with a GPA above 3.5 (or even 3.0), and have some industry experience are cut from the same cloth. They likely saw similar curricula and were taught the same ways of thinking and problem solving.

What does this mean for your business?

When you have a problem to solve or a need to innovate, the ideas are coming from a similar perspective. Thus, your team is more likely to overlook errors or miss solutions that could potentially undermine your success.

Rehashing a scenario I laid out in an interview for recent article on addressing the workforce diversity gap, consider how the following candidates might address a technical problem:
  • A computer science graduate with a 3.5 GPA from Carnegie Mellon
  • A young professional who has spent a year working in consulting, but has also spent that year teaching herself how to program and runs a freelance development business on the side
  • A self-taught programmer living in a developing country, working with outdated technology, who has built an app that has accrued 20,000 users over the past 12 months
We can agree on two things here. Each of these people has been successful in their own right and they will take unique approaches to solving the problem.

If 85% of your team looks like candidate #1, you will benefit from having candidates two or three bringing their unique perspectives to the table.

3 Keys To Identifying Non-Traditional Top Performers

With all of this said, not everyone from an nontraditional background will be a great fit for your company. However, I would venture to guess that most companies overlook the majority of such candidates because they aren’t sure what skills to look for from someone with little-to-no “traditional experience.”

Here are three keys you can use to identifying a top performer regardless of their past experience:

1 - They Put In Work Outside Of Their Current 9-to-5

When scanning a non-traditional candidate’s resume, look for indications that they are investing their personal time and money into making a change. Some examples include:
  • Attending a web development class or bootcamp
  • A freelance portfolio that leverages skills outside of their current industry
  • Coursework in aimed at learning the skills needed to be successful in a new industry
If a candidate is investing heavily in themselves, chances are good that your investment in them will have a high return.

2 - They Go Above And Beyond The Average Job Search Requirements

I advocate for my audience to create a “pre-interview project” on any company they want to work for. This framework consists of the candidate creating connections, identifying the company’s largest need, and developing solutions which are then delivered back to the company.

If your candidate does the bare minimum during the job search (i.e. they applied online, waited for you to call, then answered all of your questions and went home) chances are good that they are going to do the same once they’re hired.

If your candidate is going above and beyond to show interest in your company and the available role, you likely have a top performer on your hands.

3 - They Know How To Use Their Difference To Make A Difference

My close friend and diversity thought leader Tayo Rockson has a saying, “use your difference to make a difference.”

A top-performing, non-traditional candidate will know that they don’t meet the typical requirements for the role, and they won’t try to fake it. They embrace the fact that their background is different and they will illustrate how this new perspective will benefit your team and the company as a whole.

The next time you see a non-traditional resume come across your desk, think twice before dismissing it. You might just be looking at your next top performer.




Austin Belcak is the founder of Cultivated Culture, a company that helps people land jobs they love along with salaries they deserve. As a biology major, he initially started his career in the medical field. Over the course of two years, he worked his way into the technology space, landing interviews and offers at Google, Microsoft, Uber & Twitter.

The GradsofLifeVoice Forbes team provides thought leadership, research and expert commentary on innovative talent pipelines and related issues such as the skills gap, income inequality, workforce diversity, and the business case for employment pathways. We seek to change employers’ perceptions of young adults with atypical resumes from social liabilities to economic assets. This post was originally featured here.


Business Case, Hiring & Retention Practices, Skills Gap,
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