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Opinion: It’s time for employers to stop caring so much about college degrees

Opinion by Ryan Roslansky and Byron Auguste for CNN Business Perspectives

The urgent business case for finding new ways of hiring has never been clearer. The demand for workers in the US is outpacing the supply, and finding the best talent is going to be increasingly difficult as the world navigates a period of heightened economic uncertainty.

Despite the need for revamping our existing talent strategies to keep pace, employers have been slow to move on what we see as the most sustainable way to hire and grow more effective, engaged workforces: hiring for skills, instead of just relying on pedigree.

The old set of indicators — the right degree from the right school, the right network to endorse you and the right past employers on your resume — are weak predictors of what actually matters: a candidate’s ability to do the job.

It’s true that colleges and universities remain an important source of talent, but when a college degree becomes a box-checking, bureaucratic exercise, it unnecessarily places a barrier between skilled workers seeking better jobs and employers in need of their talents.

Further, while providing references and getting a gauge for “who you know” is a fairly standard practice, it can inadvertently put some candidates at a disadvantage. LinkedIn research shows, for instance, that workers who go to top universities tend to have stronger networks, giving them yet another leg up in the job search.

We’ve started to see signs of a shift on LinkedIn, with job postings that don’t have degree requirements up from 15% in January 2020 to 20% so far this year. And HR teams are increasingly looking beyond who you know or what school you attended to find great talent, with 40% of hirers on LinkedIn explicitly using skills data to fill their roles. Employers are more open to new ways of finding and evaluating job candidates, and those that move swiftly in this direction will build more resilient teams.

Broader talent pool

When employers use degrees as a proxy for skills, they miss out on half of the workforce, as Opportunity@Work’s research has shown. These are the 70 million workers who are skilled through alternative routes, such as community college, military service, workforce training programs, skills bootcamps and learning on the job — rather than through a bachelor’s degree.

LinkedIn data suggests that certain industries — like professional services, finance and tech — are some of the hardest sectors for workers without bachelor’s degrees to break into. But bringing more candidates into the fold who don’t have these traditional backgrounds can increase the pool of eligible applicants — a huge competitive edge in today’s tight labor market. It can also spur greater diversity, since 61% of Black workers, 55% of Hispanic workers, 66% of rural workers and 61% of veteran workers have in-demand skills but not bachelor’s degrees.

Stronger workforce

A degree is an achievement, but with careers stretching to half a century, a one-time intensive period of study is not enough. The reality is that with the current pace of technological change, everyone needs to continuously expand their skills, especially as industries keep changing. The same jobs today will require new skills five years from now, and organizations that understand this are thinking more critically about how to set up new hires from day one for continuous on-the-job learning.

Hiring those who have already developed some of these skills through other experiences — like lower-wage gateway jobs such as customer service representatives and computer support specialists — can jump start the training process and help companies future-proof their workforce.

Placing higher value on other proven tools — like professional certifications, which are on the rise in popularity, and evaluating candidates via behavioral questions that allow them to showcase their skills during the interview process — are other ways employers can gauge someone’s ability to do the job.

In this age of uncertainty, when companies prioritize skills (not degrees or “who you know”), they can build a more agile workforce that has gained experiences via many different routes, which can help to avoid “group-think” and lead to more dynamic teams. Those that play by the rules of an old playbook from an old era will fall behind.

The labor market has long been one of the most opaque markets in the world, burdened by the inefficient and unequal ways we match talent and opportunity. Recognizing the diverse ways skills are acquired and adopting a skills-first approach to talent will bring greater transparency, efficiency and equity to the labor market, making it easier for anyone from anywhere to achieve anything.

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