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How to drop degree requirements without sacrificing candidate quality

Article by Jeff Mazur, Executive Director - LaunchCode

Only a few years ago, it was an HR norm to disregard job candidates without formal degrees, even if they had other compelling qualifications. Now that we’re facing a digital skills gap, many companies and their hiring teams are rethinking that approach. By dropping degree requirements, they’re opening the door to a flood of advantages — not the least of which is a pipeline of new candidates.

This is good news for workers who have been systematically bypassed just because their resumes didn’t include college credentials. According to The Burning Glass Institute, 1.4 million jobs that won’t require a degree could open between now and 2027. However, that figure may end up being conservative. As more employers and recruiters realize the benefits that come with moving toward skills-based rather than education-based hiring, they’re likely to grow their non-degree job openings.

What are some upsides to looking beyond degrees and putting a greater emphasis on hands-on experience? For one, employers get the opportunity to put seasoned workers into positions. Frequently, workers who have “been there, seen that, done that” have plenty of insights to bring to the table. They’re not flummoxed by the realities of being in a workplace because they’re familiar with it. Therefore, their onboarding and training time may be reduced without affecting their productivity levels.

Secondly, hiring for aptitude and competencies can result in bringing aboard employees who are more engaged and eager to contribute. As one study from several years ago showed, skills-based hiring is a much stronger predictor of on-the-job performance than hiring based on educational background.

Finally, measuring potential rather than academic or training pedigree can help companies reduce bias during recruitment and interviewing. It’s much fairer to have all applicants undergo the same assessments, rather than choosing some over others based on their alma maters or levels of higher education. Certainly, education can still play a factor. However, removing it as the most critical element in the hiring experience lowers its power to bar otherwise talented applicants from getting far into the candidate journey.

Dropping the Degree: Overcoming Modern, Skills-Based Hiring’s Biggest Misconceptions
Despite the aforementioned advantages, some employers still hesitate to drop degree requirements. Often, their reasons for being reluctant to embrace change come from strongly held misconceptions. Below are some of the biggest misconceptions and how companies and hiring teams can work to overcome them.

Misconception 1: Candidates without degrees are uneducated
Some of the best and brightest didn’t finish their degree pursuits. Bill Gates and Steven Spielberg dropped out of school. So did Oprah Winfrey and Coco Chanel. Though not everyone who doesn’t have a college degree is on their way to becoming a billionaire, it’s disingenuous — and disrespectful — to categorize so-called “dropouts” as uneducated.

Education happens in a variety of ways, both inside and outside of classrooms. Learning is an everyday process. A manager with 10 years of direct supervision experience under her belt may have more skills than someone who is fresh out of an MBA program.

If you’re worried that a candidate shows possibility but doesn’t have the technical know-how for a position, think about offering professional development as part of onboarding. Training, certifications, and at-work learning programs can fill any knowledge gaps quickly and effectively. You’ll end up with someone who has all the education needed to help you meet your corporate goals.

Misconception 2: Workers without degrees aren’t as dedicated
Many people choose not to pursue a formal education after high school. Their reasons can vary widely. Some may not have had the financial means to go to trade school or college. Others may have lacked the time due to pressing personal commitments.

Think of it this way: Does someone who has held down two jobs between ages 18 and 23 have less motivation than someone who earned a bachelor’s degree in the same timeframe? Not necessarily. The abilities that the former person learned while working in the field may be just as valuable as what the latter person learned in college courses.

Rather than seeing a formal degree as a measurement of dedication, look for other indicators that a candidate is ready to become a key member of your team. For instance, consider a candidate who has been regularly promoted by past employers. Those promotions are meaningful and show that the employers trusted the individual’s judgment and abilities.

Misconception 3: Skills-based hiring is a more challenging process than credentials-based hiring
For employers who have never considered skills-based hiring, the process may seem daunting. How is it possible to ensure that a candidate is qualified without leveraging degrees? One answer is effective, objective testing that shows the candidate’s aptitude. Testing can be done during the interview process as well to appraise a candidate under real-world conditions. Another answer is by using already constructed metrics.

There are metrics for different fields that equate years of experience to educational programs. These metrics can help break the degree-only mindset. They can also be used to inform and update job descriptions.

Ideally, job descriptions and applications should be written in such a way that they don’t discourage applicants who lack degrees. By changing the hiring platform for degree selection to “optional,” you can remove a lot of that stigma off the bat.

Misconception 4: Individuals without degrees don’t want to learn
Just because someone lacks a formal degree doesn’t mean anything when it comes to the desire to earn credentials or learn new things. Sometimes, people just haven’t had educational doors opened to them. You can change that.

There are plenty of short-term programs that you could offer to applicants as a term of their employment offer and acceptance. By covering the costs, you’re showing that you’re investing in the future of everyone who works at your company.

Students in these types of accelerated, focused educational programs learn needed skills quickly. At the same time, they can make the jump to having credentials or a degree without jeopardizing their financial stability or healthcare coverage.

If it’s been hard for you to fill positions, think about going back to the drawing board. There are non-degree applicants out there who could be your business’s future leaders.

    Jeff Mazur is the former executive director for LaunchCode, a nonprofit aiming to fill the gap in tech talent by matching companies with trained individuals. He led the organization through growth and strategic changes during his five years as the director, and in the two years prior, he served as the vice president of partnerships. Jeff also participated in an initiative to help Microsoft fill its talent gap that saw a nearly 100% success rate. Jeff lives in St. Louis with his wife and twin girls.

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