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It's Official: Data Proves Smart Businesses Should Stop Requiring College Degrees in Job Postings

Inc. logo Inc. 7/6/2020 Jeff Haden
a person sitting in front of a computer: It's Official: Data Proves Smart Businesses Should Stop Requiring College Degrees in Job Postings © Getty Images It's Official: Data Proves Smart Businesses Should Stop Requiring College Degrees in Job Postings

Because millions of people gained the skills and experience you need through alternative routes.

The new wave of production supervisors, all with college degrees and experience in other departments, liked to make fun of Don.

His spelling was unconventional. His grammar was imaginative. He rarely spoke during staff meetings, especially those attended by upper management. To the new breed, Don wasn't supervisor material.

Even though he was, by every objective measure, the best boss I ever had. We outran the other crews. Our quality was better. Our cost control was better. We led every other crew (and department) in process improvement suggestion results. All of us could run two or three different machines; the other crews had to bring in relief operators to cover vacations, absences, etc. He constantly gave us opportunities to grow and develop and shine: Four of the seven machine operators on our crew became supervisors, two later became managers, and one of us eventually ran a plant.

Fortunately, Don had risen through the hourly ranks to become a supervisor before the company made having a college degree a management requirement.

Had he not, the plant would not have been as successful, and in terms of my career, neither would I.

Unfortunately, people like Don -- people with skills, talent, and experience -- are held back at an alarming rate. Harvard Business School research reveals widespread "degree inflation" in job postings. The report shows that in 2015, 67 percent of job postings for new production supervisors required a college degree -- even though only 16 percent of existing production supervisors had degrees.

A college degree is definitely a requirement for professions like health care and engineering, where certification is involved. But for plenty of high-level jobs -- including many leadership positions -- a college degree is hardly an indicator of skill and talent.

In a recent National Bureau of Economic Research paper, a research team evaluated the skill profiles of 71 million U.S. workers -- 60 percent of the active workforce -- who had "only" graduated high school. They found that 16 million of them had the skills for "high-wage work," which the researchers defined as "earning more than twice the national median."

Yet two-thirds of them were working low- or middle-wage jobs.

In short, millions of people have the skills. They just don't have the "qualifications."

I'm not bashing people with college degrees. (I have one.) But in many professions, a degree doesn't serve as a proxy for skill. Education, however valuable and personally meaningful, is not necessarily professional training.

The candidate who spent four years developing apps, setting up client-server architectures, and using A.I. to create programs and solve tasks may be much more skilled -- and therefore qualified -- than the candidate who spent the past four years earning a computer science degree.

As Adam Grant says, "There's nothing you can learn in college that you can't learn elsewhere."

In the relatively few professions where a degree truly is a job requirement, list it.

Otherwise, simply describe the skills required to excel in the job. Maybe the candidate with a college degree will be the best fit. Maybe the candidate without a degree wil be the best fit. Either way, you've cast a larger net -- and given more people the opportunity to reach a level they deserve.

Having a degree might have made Don more well-rounded. It might have expanded his horizons. It might have given him all the great things a college education can provide.

But it wouldn't have automatically made him a better supervisory candidate. He just took a route other than college to learn how to make things happen.

How he gained the right skills? That didn't matter.

How the best candidate for your job opening gained his or her skills? That doesn't matter.

What matters is that they have the skills, the achievements, the work ethic, and the attitude it takes to excel.

None of which is guaranteed by a college degree.

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