magnifying glass over job candidates

Re-examining Candidate Requirements: “Must-Haves” vs. “Nice-to-Haves”

As a result of COVID-19, several nontraditional job candidate personas have become increasingly commonplace. We’re now seeing job seekers who are testing the waters of different industries and considering complete career changes. We’re seeing job seekers who are eager to land any type of position after months of unemployment. We’re seeing job seekers who’ve delayed or come out of retirement due to financial hardships. And, we’re seeing job seekers with children learning at home searching for more flexible roles, such as gig and part-time positions.

All the while, the challenge employers face remains the same: attracting qualified talent. According to iHire’s 2020 State of Online Recruiting Report, 77.1% of employers struggle to find qualified candidates. To mitigate this challenge, you may think that tightening the requirements listed in your job ads can help weed out unqualified and irrelevant applicants. However, being overly stringent can actually backfire. You may deter potentially great employees from applying altogether, including the aforementioned “post-COVID” candidate personas.

For instance, someone changing careers may not have the precise seven years of experience you desire but may possess valuable transferable skills and could be trained in specific on-the-job tasks. Or, someone who is re-entering the workforce after a short-lived retirement may be an excellent fit for an entry-level role you’d typically offer to a college grad. So, how can you bring these nontraditional job seekers into your talent pool?

Evaluating Must-Haves vs. Nice-to-Haves

By loosening your requirements just enough, you can widen your recruitment funnel to attract a viable, diverse talent pool. This starts by determining what I like to call candidate “must-haves” versus “nice-to-haves.”

Must-haves are the requirements that are absolutely necessary for a candidate to hold the job. You wouldn’t hire an unlicensed veterinarian or a truck driver without a valid driver’s license, right? On the other hand, nice-to-haves are qualifications that aren’t critical but would be a “plus” for the candidate to bring to the table. For example, it would be nice to hire an elementary school teacher with experience in a virtual learning environment, but that experience is not critical to success in the role.


recruiter looking at computer


Before you develop your next job ad, make a list of all the requirements for the role – hard skills, soft skills, credentials, licensures, degrees, years of experience, and so forth. You might also ask which learnings you expect employees with a certain amount of experience to have acquired (e.g., after five years, I expect my employees to be able to perform a task without supervision). Then, consider the learning as the requirement for the job, not the years of experience.

When you’re satisfied with your list, go through it, and note which requirements are must-haves and which are nice-to-haves. If you’re having trouble differentiating between the two, assess your current employees who hold similar roles. Do their backgrounds align with their present positions? What are some common traits that have made them successful? Which transferable skills did they bring from past jobs?

Once you have a solid list of must-haves and nice-to-haves, write your job description accordingly. Clearly indicate the must-haves towards the beginning of the ad (e.g., “The candidate must have a top-secret security clearance,” or “Applicant must be authorized to practice law in the state of Indiana”). When mentioning nice-to-haves, use language that indicates the skill or experience is desired, but not a deal-breaker (e.g., “Bachelor’s degree preferred, but not required,” or “Knowledge of Adobe Photoshop is a plus”).

You’ll likely have more requirements than you can squeeze into your job ad, so you may want to include pre-screening questions in your application process to help you narrow down your talent pool. Pre-screening questions can also give you the opportunity to ask candidates to elaborate on transferable skills and provide additional information that may still qualify them for the job. (But remember to keep your initial application process short to prevent abandonment – under 10 minutes is ideal.)


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Final Thoughts

As you move through the hiring process, don’t lose sight of your candidate must-haves and nice-to-haves. Consider these buckets when interviewing applicants and when making your final hiring decisions. If you’re on the fence about hiring someone who doesn’t check all the boxes, ask if a desired skill or proficiency can be taught and learned on the job.

If you’re concerned that loosening your requirements will lead to an application overload, experiment with your job ad. Start with a tighter set of requisites, see what type of candidates you get, and then adjust your ad until you get the right flow of applicants.

Lastly, if you’re still receiving too many unqualified candidates, evaluate the solutions and partners you’re using to source applicants. You may find that some vendors focus too much on quantity of applicants over quality. In my experience, it’s far more desirable to receive a handful of highly qualified candidates over dozens and dozens of irrelevant applicants (which means more resumes for you to review).

Once you find the right balance and the right partners, easing up on your “must-haves” and focusing on “nice-to-haves” should bring in great candidates you may have otherwise overlooked – applicants who may be your next star employee.


Article originally appeared on


by: Jason Hayes
May 18, 2021