During the pandemic, Kenefra Carter lost her job as a business process manager, and as a single mother of two, she felt pressure to find something else quickly. But she was unsure about her prospects: “I don’t have a degree,” she says. “I built my career from experience.”

Though people without four-year college degrees still face barriers to hiring, a shift is underway. For several years, employers have been eliminating degree requirements for a wide variety of roles, especially for middle-skill positions, and to a lesser extent, higher-skill positions. 

That shift is helping to correct “degree inflation,” a trend that accelerated after the Great Recession of 2007-09 when employers added degree requirements for jobs that previously didn’t have them. Degree inflation has particularly hurt populations with college graduation rates lower than the national average, such as Black and Hispanic workers. 

After interviews with three companies, Carter ultimately took a position as a customer success manager at The Mom Project, a digital talent marketplace and community for professional women. The job requirements were similar to those at her previous role, including building project plans. 

“Just because someone doesn’t have a degree or a background that would normally align to who you would hire, you need to look beyond that,” she says.  “It’s about transferable skills.” 

Widen the Talent Pool in Tech With Skills-Based Hiring

A focus on skills- and behavior-based hiring rather than on specific experience can help widen the potential talent pool significantly. 

About 62% of Americans over 25 have no bachelor’s degree, according to the U.S. Census — a figure that rises to 72% for Black adults and 79% for Hispanic adults. The cost of getting a degree is a barrier for many: The average cost of college, including tuition and room and board, is over $25,000 per year for public institutions, and over $54,000 per year for private ones. 

Image is a blue text overlaying a mint green and white background. The text says '62% of Americans over 25 have no bachelor's degree, according to the U.S. Census.'

“People who have higher education — that’s wonderful,” says LaFawn Davis, Indeed’s senior vice president of environmental, social and governance. “But it’s not always the best predictor for how someone will perform, especially if someone has years of experience,” she says. Davis herself does not have a degree, which she says used to be a barrier to entry for her.

Degree requirements can be barriers for companies too: For years, employers have been struggling to find the talent they need, particularly when it comes to technology. Globally, across industries, more than 85 million jobs could go unfilled by 2030 because there aren’t enough skilled people to take them, according to “The Global Talent Crunch,” a report by organizational consulting firm Korn Ferry. The United States alone can expect to lose out on more than $162 billion by 2030 due to skills shortages in technology, media and telecommunications, the report says.

“How do you bring a lot more people into the industry?” Rajesh Ahuja, Infosys senior vice president and head of talent acquisition, asked at the Indeed FutureWorks 2022 conference. One way, he said, is to recruit people with high school diplomas and community college degrees, or people who didn’t study science, technology, engineering or math in college — people who “typically do not get represented in the tech workforce in a meaningful fashion.” 

Across industries, many companies — including Netflix, IBM and Penguin Random House — are moving away from requiring people to have a college degree for tech jobs. Instead, employers are shifting to skills-based hiring, or evaluating job applicants on the basis of demonstrated skills and competencies rather than formal education. 

Industry groups are picking up that charge: More than 80 companies signed on to Business Roundtable’s 2020 initiative to emphasize skills over degrees and improve equity, diversity and workplace culture. A similar initiative from an organization called Opportunity@Work encourages the hiring of people it refers to as STARs, or skilled through alternative routes.

‘Open the Doors’ to Talent 

Research shows that having a degree has only a marginal impact on performance outside of specific fields like finance and professional services. And technical skills, or “hard” skills, can be verified through testing, certification and employment history. Conversely, just because someone went to college doesn’t necessarily mean they have the skills for a certain job. 

“So many people have a bachelor’s degree in something they’re not even working in — so what’s the relevance of the degree?” says Chandra Sanders, vice president of RISE, an upskilling and reskilling program for women of color. RISE has put more than 6,000 moms of color through its certification programs, including those for IT support, data analytics and user experience design. In addition to certifications, women also receive interview preparation and support through the process.

“If you want to attract and retain the best talent, you have to elevate your hiring practice,” Sanders says. “You have to open the doors. Doing it traditionally really left out a whole group of people, especially people of color.” 

And companies can keep opening doors for people — even after they’re hired. In-house training programs and upskilling opportunities are essential for helping talented people transition into new roles and leadership positions. Learning is a lifelong process, not something that can happen only in a college classroom. 

When Carter was between jobs, she took RISE’s project management course. At The Mom Project, she has moved into a role as project manager for diversity, equity and inclusion, and she helps others like herself — moms, women of color, people without college degrees — get new jobs. 

“You can’t say, ‘I’m going to open this door, but then candidates have to have the same credentials as every white man I’ve ever hired,’” she says. If companies are serious about diversity and inclusion, they have to remove barriers, Carter says. “You have to meet people where they are to increase your diversity. If you continue to do the same thing, you get the same people.”

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