HR and Recruiting

How to recognize (and hire!) a “learner”

Written by Kate Lopaze

With so much changing and left uncertain in a pandemic world, adaptability has become one of the most prized qualities around—for both employers and employees. For companies, it means being able to strategize and succeed even when external forces are chaotic. For workers, it’s more about testing the boundaries of traditional work roles and routines and rethinking what their role in the workforce is (or should be).

According to a recent study by PricewaterhouseCoopers, employees see problem-solving, the ability to learn new skills and apply them quickly, and adaptability as the skills that will make them most marketable in the years to come. That means employers should be capitalizing on this by identifying talent that strives to grow and change and has the ability to expand their skills to meet shifting trends.

That may be easier said than done, though. Recruiters and hiring managers need to be able to find that talent and figure out which potential employees are likely to be lifelong learners. Employees who engage in skill-building and development tend to be happier in their positions, so these learners are a better long-term bet.

Go beyond the basic learning styles

Everyone has a learning style that works best for them—visual, hands-on, analytical, etc. It’s not having a style that makes a person a learner, but rather the curiosity and drive to go beyond a current skill set. In an interview, you can start by asking how a person learns best, but the answer probably won’t tell you much about what pushes them to learn. Instead, gear your questions toward problem-solving or specific examples of valuable things they’ve learned and applied.

Ask about their goals

If you ask about someone’s professional goals, and you get a set of hard metrics, like making a certain sales goal, or getting a particular title, that doesn’t show much about their ability to learn and grow. It shows that they know what benchmarks they’re likely supposed to hit. If their goals are more activity-oriented (like picking up a certain set of skills), that can tell you that they’re interested in the process as much as the destination.

Ask about their favorite source of professional content

Inspiration and information can come from a variety of sources, from courses and books to social media. Knowing what content candidates turn to when they want to level up is important. When talking about it, focus on how the person applies it to their professional life. How does the person select what’s most useful? How does this information shape their goals and performance?

It’s also important to remain open-minded about what drives learning. As companies look to diversify their employee base, it has required a rethinking of what constitutes the “right” perspective and being more open to employees who approach things in a less conventional way. If one candidate has a history of taking courses to get what they need, while others approach it in a more communal way (like networking or going out of their way to learn from colleagues), the most important focus is how they apply the information.

Be example-oriented rather than skill-oriented

This involves going outside of the resume bullets and is likely already similar to your interview approach. To gauge someone’s learner status, ask them to provide specific examples of how they’ve sought new knowledge in the past, and how they applied it to their work. For instance, you could say, “Tell me about a time you needed to learn a new skill, and how you sped up that learning process.” The person’s answer will tell you a lot about how they approach learning and development, while also demonstrating that they’ve done it successfully in the past.

As you look for the learners to fill out your team, it’s also important to remember to model the same kind of eagerness for development in your organization. Be sure to talk about how your company values ongoing learning and training, and tell potential candidates about the kinds of support you provide to those who want to go above and beyond to develop professionally. Be open about your learning culture to make sure you’re attracting the right people.

With employers and employees striving to be more adaptable these days, it’ll be easier to find the right fits with just a bit of mindful tweaking to your existing recruiting and interviewing processes.

About the author

Kate Lopaze

Kate Lopaze is a writer, editor, and digital publishing professional based in New York City. A graduate of the University of Connecticut and Emerson College with degrees in English and publishing, she is passionate about books, baseball, and pop culture (though not necessarily in that order), and lives in Brooklyn with her dog.