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Want to foster true innovation? Look beyond traditional job requirements

February 07, 2021

By: Pierre-Antoine Descôteaux

For me, the biggest barrier in the youth employment landscape is the lack of empathy and value for diverse skills and experiences gained from non-traditional pathways. 

Not only does this lead to bias, but it cuts innovation at its root, because the best ideas come from teams who can offer diverse perspectives.

In the employment system, bias can lead to candidates with non-traditional job experiences being dismissed, misunderstood and not recognized for their true value. 

Qualifications are often ranked by knowledge a culture or society considers ‘valuable,’ and they often act as disproportionate barriers. This is especially harmful for youth, marginalized youth in particular, who very often do not have access to traditional skills-building opportunities (i.e. college/university), placing them further from meaningful employment opportunities where they can grow their skills.  

In job postings for example, we see the same types of requirements: a traditional university or college education and experience in the field they’re applying for. 

Many youth could have developed the very same skills the employers are looking for, but in ways unknown or unthought of by employers, and even by youth themselves sometimes. 

For example, sport can develop teamwork and resilience, improv develops creativity, entrepreneurship develops leadership, travelling or growing up in different locations develops open-mindedness.

That should be valued, rather than dismissed, because it has the potential to bring a perspective to the table that traditional training may never produce. 

Improv teaches valuable skills such as creativity and collaboration (Photo: CBC)

Using unconditional empathy to recognize valuable skillsets and drive diversity

In order to recognize non-traditional pathways of learning and developing skills, one must use unconditional empathy. This means truly listening to the person in front of them and to think about the different ways this person might have learned the exact skills one is looking for. Try to be an ally rather than a critique. This will help you learn more deeply about the person you are interviewing and help you make better decisions on the talent you’re bringing to your organization.

Diversity and Innovation

We know that diverse talent and experiences yield better results. A survey by BCG shows companies with above-average diversity on their leadership teams  reported higher innovation revenue.

Another study by Human Resource Executive found that diverse management teams are: 

  • 33% more likely to generate better-than-average profits;
  • 70% more likely to capture new markets. 
  • 19% more revenue from innovation than companies with below-average leadership diversity. 

But how can we ensure that our own biases don’t get in the way of welcoming diverse candidates with non-traditional education backgrounds?  

One success story comes from Chris Nchopa-Ayafor, the chief information officer of Tarrant County in Texas. 

Chris Nchopa-Ayafor, chief information officer of Tarrant County in Texas. 


Drawing from his own experiences of being educated in Cameroon, Europe, the Middle East and the United States, and representing a minority of Black professionals in tech, he created a three-step approach to help remove unconscious bias and identify the best and brightest talent: 

  1. Replace one-on-one interviews with diverse panels for vetting candidates, holding managers responsible for maintaining a consistent process and using the same interview questions for all candidates vying for a given position.
  2. Introduce entry-level positions and internships to grow talent, supported by coaching and mentorship. This shifted the focus of the hiring process on where you are going and underscored a clear connection between working hard and career advancement. 
  3. Create a unified database to collect candidate information, creating a level playing field for all applicants. By fostering a competitive environment for all, Chris ensures that the most qualified candidates will be selected. 

The result? Not only does his department reflect the diversity of the community, but Chris also led the way for more organizations to use similar approaches. 

Innovation and the value of non-conditional empathy

I believe that implementing practices like Chris’ starts with empathy. But, there remains a problem with today’s empathy: it is conditional. Conditional to someone’s level of relatability to the other person’s circumstances. I can myself use conditional empathy to empathize with someone who experiences professional burnout, because I lived one, but I can’t relate to someone that is a woman, or an Indigenous youth who grew up in Toronto. 

If we want to foster innovation, let’s start with non-conditional empathy and value the life experiences that make people different and unique. The value a person can bring to a workplace is more than a GPA score or typical path to employment after schooling. If you don’t value non-traditional employment journeys, how can you aspire to be innovative? It’s time to reinvent the wheel, and it starts with changing the way we hire. 


Are you between 15 and 29 and looking to break into the job market? Get free interview training and first dibs on job opportunities in your area with InterviewME!

Employers: Want to learn more about Opportunity For All Youth and our innovative youth hiring programs? Contact us here!

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