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Skills that can be learned on the job vs Skills that come naturally
March 4, 2014 2:09 PM   Subscribe

I once went to an interview and the interviewers gave everyone who had been invited a test. The reason for having the test according to the interviewer was that there were some things that she could teach us and there were others that she couldn't and she wanted to know if we possessed those skills (in this case it was reading a scenario and seeing if we could pick out the right points). Has anyone come across this concept before? Are you able to elaborate on the concept?
posted by Metaphysics to Work & Money (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
My job, legal filings, is exactly like this. Maybe not after a test, but probably after reading a cover letter and resume (and definitely after a try-out) I can tell if a person is at least deficient in what you need to do this job.

It's not a thing that can be taught: either you grasp (in both the "comprehend" and "execute" sense) that there is literally no room for error on certain things, or you don't. The actual mechanics of the job, though, isn't something I (or anyone we've hired) could be expected to come in here with an understanding of. It's not like you can go to school to learn this stuff, so everything is learned on the job. But the work requires a mentality -- precise to an anal degree, always double-checking, etc. -- that you either have or you don't.

Also, when I was a teenager, I was fired from a job I was pretty bad at. My boss at the time told me that it was like "trying to teach someone to be tall." I keep that in mind a lot.
posted by griphus at 2:21 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


Kind of similar? I am sometimes involved with tryouts for my roller derby league, and we often talk about what we can and can't teach a given person. Example, we can teach them to skate, but we can't teach them aggressiveness and motivation.
posted by pixiecrinkle at 2:26 PM on March 4


While pretty much everything probably CAN be taught, at least to a motivated enough pupil, there are still some things that are extraordinarily difficult to teach and a boss just doesn't have time to hold your hand through it, they need you to already be good at those things for the job they are hiring for.

Attention to detail. Spelling. Grammar. (those probably all go together). Coping with change. Empathy. Being able to grasp the important concepts in a story (that would be your example). Asking good questions.
posted by magnetsphere at 2:38 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


Graphic design is something that definitely relies on on-the-job training for someone to become a really good designer. School is a great place to learn how to use the tools, but you really don't learn graphic design until you're on the job and doing it in the real world.

You learn the tools and basic skills in school. But the real world teaches you what you can do with them.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:56 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


I worked at a 24-screen movie theater while in college. Some roles at a movie theater are monotonous and boring. Working the box office and selling tickets is a good example. Others require speed for short bursts of time between films. That's concessions. And the guys up in the projection booth had to have a keen sense of time and be mechanically proficient to make sure the movies started on time without tangles.

We had up to 120 employees on staff at a time, and some were great at one job and horrible at another. Some put up with monotony fine, while others went stir crazy. And some were awesome at cleaning theaters quickly, but I would never let them work in a customer service role.

Each person had a specific mindset or "aura" that made them a good fit for certain jobs. The ones who could do everything - sell tickets when the line was long, then jump into the concession stand, then run upstairs and start a projector - those had a certain attitude that couldn't be taught. They just *fit* as multi-taskers.
posted by tacodave at 2:57 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


I'm a librarian in public service and you can teach people the skills of being a librarian like looking things up, understanding taxonomy, the steps of how to conduct a proper reference interview etc but you can't teach them to want to help people with those skills. One of the big jokes in public library HR is that the people that think they would be good librarians (bookish, super-smart in one area, attention to detail, mild mannered, air of superiority) are rarely the ones you want to hire (empathetic, excellent customer service skills, multitaskers, authorative). The authorative and the empathetic skills are especially difficult to find in one person, some one willing to sit beside someone for half an hour trying to navigate e-gov services for vulnerable populations and working with sensitive, personal information, and immediately afterwards control a group of people behaving inappropriately and either redirect their behaviour or enforce policies they do not agree with.
posted by saucysault at 3:09 PM on March 4 [13 favorites]


Anecdotally, it's supposedly the case that exam results on computer programming courses have a bimodal distribution. Plenty of people have argued that this is evidence that programming aptitude (if not ability) is innate, so one peak is people who have it and the other peak is people who don't.

I also note that you may be confusing "thing it's possible to teach" with "things that a particular person is able and willing to teach".
posted by emilyw at 3:15 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


I've actually worked (previously*) at places that did this, except it was more along the lines of "we can teach this worker to do this work, but we can't teach this person to have x personality," with x personality being someone who could add value to the group outside of their work efforts. And, the test wasn't just whether you could do or learn the work, but also how you responded to having a knowledge gap.

*I am so glad to be free of this.
posted by sm1tten at 4:27 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


You might find it helpful to think of it as skills (learned) vs talent or ability (innate).

There is some overlap, of course, but some talents seem to be difficult-to-impossible to learn, especially if the job requires a high level of skill in that area. Some more examples: having a head for numbers, proofreading abillity, creativity, curiosity, empathy, work ethic, being "good with people", being "organized", even the ability to learn in general.

(Yes, all of these can be improved slightly with enough effort, but I've never seen anyone go from terrible to excellent at these kinds of things).
posted by randomnity at 4:49 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


I think a better way of framing this is that there are skills an employer is willing to teach and there are skills they are not willing to invest the time into teaching.

There is no such thing as something that's impossible to teach, some things are just harder than others for some people to learn. Of course, there is the corollary that most people are absolutely terrible at teaching.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 5:11 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


In First Break All The Rules the author differentiates between knowledge, skills, and talent - with talent being exactly what you are describing. Talent refers to your innate disposition: introvert, detail-obsessed, orderly, processual - those are talents that (together with my knowledge and skills) help me to be a great statistician. All the training in the world couldn't make me a great salesperson.
posted by arcticwoman at 5:13 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


When i was hired as a server and soon-to-be bartender, I had very little experience. I thought the job posting was for a cook. My boss told me he could teach someone to be a server, or bartend, but he couldn't teach someone to have a natural ease with people.

I find this to be very true in the restaurant business.
posted by efalk at 5:52 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


I work with professional program graduate students and medical students as part of their educational training, and more than once I've worked with a student who is great on paper, with excellent grades, and a real grasp of the nuts and bolts, but with absolutely no clinical or people skills. It's the worst thing ever because it's something you absolutely can't teach (well maybe someone can - I can't, and I consider myself a good instructor).
posted by lilnublet at 6:30 PM on March 4


On the basis that I have spent the last 18 months trying to get one of my trainees to understand when and how to ask questions I can assure you that some people are resisting all attempts at training them to do specific things to the extent that I'm phasing that person off my team. And this is a very bright person who fundamentally does not get why what they are doing does not work. They are about to have a very rude awakening because their failure to grasp this and implement it is now affecting their performance and will prevent them from joining another team they want to join. So these things do make a lot of sense to me. If this results in them deciding that you may not be suited for that particular job in that particular organisation don't feel bad about it. My trainee is very bright and tries very hard but they simply don't get it.
posted by koahiatamadl at 10:54 PM on March 4


In previous roles as a hiring manager of support workers and frontline managers for people with disabilities I have conducted basic literacy and numeracy tests to ensure they can complete the paperwork required of the role, understand the rota etc. These things can of course be taught but frankly I'd really rather not have to expend the time and resources.

For my current job I had to undertake an assessment which involved reading case studies and writing a report based on those. This was to assess my understanding of the function of the organisation (a government regulatory body), the statutory framework in which it's based and also the actual role itself - collecting and corroborating evidence from numerous sources and making a regulatory judgement. Lots of people apply for these positions, but very few get through the assessment to interview, so as a weeding out mechanism I think it works well.
posted by goo at 12:14 PM on March 5


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