What Leaders Need to Know About Hiring for Jobs That Require a Degree

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The number of jobs that require a degree has been dropping in recent years. Here's what employers need to know about degree requirements and their impact on talent acquisition and employee retention.

Many employers are reducing — or entirely dropping — the college degree requirements for some positions in an attempt to attract a broader talent pool.

The proportion of new job postings that listed a bachelor's degree as a requirement fell to 7% in 2021, down from 11% in 2020 and 15% in 2016, according to ZipRecruiter. This shift marks the gradual recovery from an era of "degree inflation" after the Great Recession, when many employers increased the number of jobs that require a degree, even for positions that hadn't previously required them and hadn't changed in scope of responsibility.

Major employers in almost every industry are working to right-size their educational requirements, even in highly technical fields. For example, about 50% of IBM's current U.S. openings are jobs that require a degree, and Google reduced college degree requirements from 89% of jobs in 2017 to 72% in 2021, according to a recent report from The Burning Glass Institute.

Regardless of their industry or location, business leaders should be asking whether, or when, they should require a four-year degree as a prerequisite for employment in certain positions. Here's a look at this growing trend and the potential business benefits of moving away from unnecessary educational requirements.

Reversing degree inflation

The primary reason for reducing or eliminating degree requirements in hiring is to broaden a business's talent pool, which can be a big benefit for employers. Removing unnecessary degree requirements often results in a larger population of potential candidates, which can provide a key advantage amid a talent shortage.

The global health crisis accelerated the trend of reducing or eliminating degree requirements, and this progress is likely to continue once the crisis is behind us. Because current job openings still outnumber available workers, employers need to adopt new methods to compete for candidates. Reducing job requirements is one such method.

Prior to the pandemic, many employers focused talent acquisition efforts on early careers programs, recruiting heavily on college campuses. When businesses had to pivot at the beginning of the pandemic, according to Jason Delserro, Chief Talent Acquisition Officer at ADP, employers began "eliminating things like degree requirements in some cases to expand in terms of talent pipelines and who they were willing to look at."

The rapid shift to remote work complicated the talent landscape further, breaking down geographic barriers and broadening talent pools for many industries. "When everyone started doing it at simultaneously, it quickly created a competitive landscape," Delserro added.

Improving diversity, equity and inclusion

As mentioned above, expanding the talent pool is a key benefit of moving away from degree requirements. It can also support greater diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in talent acquisition, allowing employers to meet more diverse candidates and consider their skills and experience — whether they have a college degree or not. In many cases, reducing or eliminating educational requirements for positions can help organizations tackle the challenges of underrepresented groups and enable employers to identify skilled workers regardless of their background.

Learning from the skilled trades

Employers can learn a lot from the common model of talent development in skilled trade industries. Often, workers enter the field with little or no experience, and employers train them in the skills they'll need to succeed, either completely on the job or through supplementary industry certifications. This skills-based approach can help organizations fill positions more easily and develop employees who might stay longer.

Investing in workers

Investing in worker training can benefit organizations in the short and long term. Teaching employees the skills needed to advance business goals helps to ensure the sustainability of your organization and its products and services.

"Across the United States, many organizations [are embracing the] concept of micro degrees, or role-specific learning," said Delserro. "[It's a] very job-specific intensive training that gets people up to speed on the core fundamentals of the role. [It's not like] going for your Bachelor's degree, where you have to take all your electives and learn things that may not apply to your future career. In six to eight weeks, [you train employees] on the skills needed to perform and thrive in a new role."

When business leaders can hire smart, capable people and train them on the specific skills required, the organization is less likely to struggle with talent shortages. This is because it's developing talent within its ranks, rather than looking for a perfectly matched skill set on the talent market.

"I want someone loyal, a good human being, an exceptional work ethic, and a good head on their shoulders," said Delserro. "If you give us that, we can teach you everything else. If you have those qualities, we can provide the role-specific training needed to ensure you are successful."

Another way to invest in employees is through tuition assistance. If advanced education is important to your organization, you can help employees earn higher degrees by paying some or all of their educational expenses, offering flexible schedules for student employees and prioritizing internal candidates for new openings.

Deciding when to require a degree

Getting rid of degree requirements for all jobs might sound like a simple way to fix the talent shortage, train the next generation of capable workers and solve numerous talent acquisition problems that many businesses face. But that's far from realistic. There are, and will continue to be, many jobs that require a degree — and rightly so.

"There's certainly a place for formal education," said Delserro. "I'd be very leery of going to a doctor who never went to college or university or having an attorney represent me who never went to law school. But for some roles, [a degree isn't necessary.] It goes back to good people."

Adopting new perspectives on talent

Since the beginning of the pandemic, employers have had to rethink many of the practices and strategies they previously considered normal and effective. Organizations that quickly adapt and evolve to meet the challenges of the changing talent landscape and the emerging future of work will come out ahead.

In hiring for jobs that require a degree currently, business leaders may want to reevaluate whether that degree is actually necessary, or whether a skills-based approach might enable them to hire and retain more of the right people.

Want to know more about taking a people-centered approach to talent strategy? Download our guide today.