College degree required? Not in this economy

By dropping degree requirements from job openings, recruiters gain access to workers without college degrees but with all the right skills.
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· 4 min read

Brandon Feltz is finishing his third month at Keap, a software company that works with clients to grow their businesses through marketing automation.

The front-end developer landed the job just one month after finishing a three-month software engineering bootcamp with General Assembly, a for-profit coding academy.

“A lot of bootcamps and other programs really teach you how things are used day-to-day in a work environment,” Feltz said. “They kind of prepare you for technology that tech companies are using right now.”

Feltz is part of a large segment of the American workforce that some hiring teams and recruiters might be overlooking: STARs.

The acronym refers to employees and applicants who are “skilled through alternative routes.” These workers have earned credits from community college or completed a career-specific training program like General Assembly. Others have military experience or have learned valuable skills on the job.

“STARs are half the labor market,” said Audrey Mickahail, VP of advisory services at Opportunity@Work. “They are the majority of Black workers and Hispanic workers and rural workers and veterans.”

Opportunity@Work, a nonprofit social enterprise, is helping employers, government agencies, and career-services companies understand applicants like Feltz and reimagine job descriptions to make sure candidates aren’t discouraged from applying or rejected because of degree requirements.

“Managers who themselves possess bachelor’s degrees tend to overestimate the proportion of the population that holds a bachelor’s degree,” Mickahail said. “They may not recognize that when you require a bachelor’s degree, you are automatically screening out the vast majority of Black workers, Hispanic workers, rural workers, and veterans, but that is the implication.”

Shifting away from degree-requirements for positions for which they’re not necessary could help to recruit and hire in a tight labor market by dramatically opening the pool of qualified individuals.

This year, CareerBuilder released a suite of new online tools, called CoLab, for job-seekers to explore and apply for jobs based on their skills, rather than their previous titles or credentials.

“This was really meant not only to serve the job-seeker, but also the employer because the labor market is very tight for certain skill sets,” said Kristin Kelly, chief marketing officer at CareerBuilder.

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Some companies in industries like IT, tech, warehouse management and logistics, and biopharmaceuticals are moving away from generic degree requirements and instead looking at alternative criteria to assess qualification.

“Bill Gates could not have gotten a job at Microsoft until about 2020, when they took out their degree requirements,” said Joseph Fuller, a professor at Harvard Business School. “You can get some pretty acute examples of the types of people who get credited as cosmic geniuses who wouldn’t be chosen by AI for consideration.”

The trend of including degree requirements might be reversing, according to Fuller, who authored a February report titled, The Emerging Degree Reset. He pointed to the degree requirement as a proxy, telling recruiters and employers that an applicant has certain skills presumed to be the result of a bachelor’s education: writing, interpersonal communication, and self-efficacy.

If employers remove the degree requirements from their postings, Fuller said his research suggests they would be much more discerning about what they’re looking for in candidates. What’s more, an additional 1.4 million jobs could open to workers without college degrees over the next five years, according to the report.

Mickahail called degree requirements a “self-inflicted wound” and noted that their rise following the Great Recession emerged from a completely different set of economic circumstances than today.

“Back in 2008, when employers were getting flooded with applicants…this was like a convenient hack [but] at this point, it’s a hack that has far outlived its usefulness,” she said. “What we would argue is that degrees are the wrong denominator for the labor market. The right denominator is skills. It’s better for the worker, and it’s better for the employer.”

Many employers, Mickahail said, don’t put enough effort into updating job descriptions regularly. She pointed to the State of Maryland, which this year eliminated college-degree requirements for thousands of government jobs. The state was able to do much of this by simply updating decades-old job descriptions, said Mickahail.

Today’s job market is the perfect time for HR teams to pen new job descriptions and make sure they match the moment, she said.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.