Late last year, the U.S. Department of Labor released reported unemployment rates were holding firm at 3.7 percent — a nearly 50-year low. If you’re an employer you don’t have to be told what this means: it’s really tough to find great talent right now.
I have a suggestion: expand your pool of candidates by considering those who don’t have a college degree.
One of the biggest misconceptions among employers is that people must hold a college degree to be a viable candidate. It’s just not true.
Not only are there plenty of smart young people out there who are choosing not to follow the traditional path, those who do follow it often don’t have the skills employers need. It makes no sense to cling to old hiring practices when we live and work in a whole new world.
So let’s change the conversation around how we educate America’s workforce. Not only are colleges failing to deliver candidates with the skills businesses need, many talented young people are bypassing college altogether. They see the astronomical price of a four-year degree and are unwilling to cripple themselves financially to attain one. Plus, they believe (and rightly so) that they can find better educational options and hone their skill set elsewhere.
So why do employers still believe traditional education is needed? It’s because the presence of a degree is a signal — a psychological shortcut that enables us to make good decisions without doing the exhaustive research needed to investigate every option. But signals can lose their meaning, and that’s what has been happening for some time now.
The “I have a degree, therefore I am smart, hardworking and well-to-do” signal made sense back when only 5 percent of males born in 1900 had a college degree.1 Today, with nearly 40 percent of working-age Americans holding degrees,2 it doesn’t mean as much. What’s worse, many degrees are useless to employers, curricula are disconnected from the needs of today’s marketplace, and college typically fails to develop needed skills like critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication.3
The bottom line? If employers insist that the person we hire have a degree, we might well be missing out on the perfect candidate. Here are some suggestions:
First, shift your mindset to override the “degree” signal. Take a long, hard look at what really leads to success and performance, recognizing that university degrees aren’t the key, and revising your job postings to reflect the stuff that actually matters. You won’t be the first; in 2015, Ernst & Young professional services in the United Kingdom removed degree classification from its hiring criteria, citing a lack of evidence that university success correlated with job performance.4 Similarly, Laszlo Bock, former head of people operations at Google, went on record saying that grades in degree programs are “worthless as a criteria for hiring”5 — and currently as much as 14 percent of employees on some Google teams never attended college.6
Drop the application tracking system, or at least switch off the filtering related to education. While you’re tweaking your hiring process, lean more into the assessments and simulations that actually give you a sense of what candidates can bring to the table. When Ernst & Young did this, they saw a 10-percent increase in the diversity of new hires.7
Look at candidates who have pursued more progressive, cutting-edge options. Many students are now choosing hybrid programs like the one offered by Minerva Schools at KGI, or a “last mile” training offered by MissionU, or a program like Praxis, whose slogan is “The degree is dead. You need experience.”
Consider ditching the résumé requirement. People often embellish the truth (or outright lie) on resumes. Instead, ask candidates to fill out an online application that has behavior questions and asks people to do tasks they’ll need to be able to do on the job. This provides a much better picture of whether they’ll be able to perform. Plus, some candidates might have exactly the qualities you want but don’t come across well on a resume.
Ask candidates to perform a task that simulates the job. These could be built into your online application. For example, if you’re hiring a writer you would ask them to complete a short writing task. This is a good way to weed out those candidates that don’t have the technical proficiency to do the job, which will make narrowing down the list much easier.
For more complicated jobs consider paying a candidate to take on a project. Or hire someone on a contract basis to make sure they have the right stuff before you extend a more permanent offer.
During the interview, focus mostly on chemistry and culture fit. By the time a candidate gets to this phase, they will have demonstrated that they have what it takes to do the job. What the interview can really tell you is how well you’ll get along with the person. So ask any remaining questions you may have, but mostly let the candidate do the talking.
Finally, cultivate the things that matter by developing a culture of learning and growth. While it’s important to find the right candidates, it’s even more important to make sure you continue to develop people after you hire them. Consider engaging training providers.
Remember that talent comes in all shapes and sizes, and that the value of the degree you might have earned decades ago is very different from the value of degrees offered by institutions of higher learning today. As a business leader, it is your job to take the actions that lead your organization into the future, and this is how to do it. Danny Iny
1. 5% of males born in 1900 held degrees. This glance back at the history of higher ed is reported in chapter 4 of Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed.
2. 40% of working Americans have college degrees. In a PBS Newshour article, reporters discuss how the greatest financial challenge 18-49 year olds are facing is paying for that college degree. Read more at https://www.pbs.org/newshour/education/percentage-americans-college-degrees-rises-paying-degrees-tops-financial-challenges
3. “Failing to develop higher-order cognitive skills.” In their 2011 book Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa discuss how college students are failing to develop the higher-order cognitive skills that they need to succeed.
4. Weak correlation between university success and job performance. This data is shared by Ryan Craig in chapter 3 of A New U.
5. “Grades are worthless as a criteria for hiring.” As reported in a 2013 New York Times article, which can be read at https://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/20/business/in-head-hunting-big-data-may-not-be-such-a-big-deal.html
6. 14% of employees on some Google teams never attended college. As reported by Ryan Craig in chapter 3 of A New U.
7. Increased diversity at Ernst & Young. The impact of alternative, skill-based hiring processes on diversity are highlighted by Ryan Craig in chapter 3 of A New U.