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Getting rid of degree requirements means changing a lot more than job-posting language

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza
Article Date
September 8, 2023

If you're trying to hire for skills, you'll need to make changes to your promotions, pay, and culture, too.

The tight labor market of the last few years has spurred employers to rethink the way they screen job applicants, and some, like Kellogg’s, General Motors, and Bank of America are eliminating four-year degree requirements. The alternative to degree requirements and strict rules about work experience has come to be known as skills-based hiring—and it can attract workers from a wider variety of backgrounds, experiences, and skill sets.

“Removing the four-year degree requirement is a powerful first step, but isn’t going to get the job done all by itself,” says Elyse Rosenblum, managing director and founder at Grads of Life, which advocates for sustainable and inclusive hiring practices. “A skills-first talent management strategy is what leading employers are doing.”

But after ditching degree requirements, employers and managers should be prepared to make changes to hiring, promotions, pay, and culture, too. Here’s what workforce advocates, academics, and employees say makes skills-based hiring effective.

Start small

Overhauling hiring processes can be daunting. Rosenblum suggests starting where hiring managers are excited about a new way of doing things. That could be with just one team. “Companies that are doing best right now did not start tiny, they didn’t pick one job, but they did start small—a division, a business unit—and they did some work to figure out this is going to work in their organization and what needs to change in their culture,” she says.

Identify culture changes to be made

Companies will have to banish old ways of thinking about job qualifications, especially because hiring managers and colleagues may continue to favor applicants with degrees. Workers say they’ve felt their competency questioned; they’ve also been underpaid, denied raises, and prevented from advancing within the organization. “I was always told that I need to prove myself more,” says Christina Ward, who has worked in tech and book publishing over the last twenty years.

Teams should train managers on this discriminatory behavior (and establish a zero-tolerance policy for it). Track workers’ mobility throughout the organization, as well as pay and promotions, to ensure they’re not forced to lag behind their peers.

Avoid inadvertent tokenism 

Celeste Staggers-Elmore, a robotics engineer who has worked for Google and the autonomous vehicle company Cruise, says that she’s been used as an example. Her boss once introduced her as part of a hiring initiative, saying “Look at these people we hired; they don’t have college degrees, but they’re here to work with us.”

“It felt like they were showing us off,” says Staggers-Elmore. “I’m not a sad kid! I applied for this job because I know I can learn this job. Why are you trying to make people feel bad for me and make me an outlier in this company?”

The lesson is simple: Hire workers and let them do their jobs. Disclose degree status only with the explicit consent of the employee.

Make it clear that a degree is not required

Your job postings should also be explicit that candidates don’t need diplomas. “Making it clear in the job description that a degree is not required is really helpful to [applicants], knowing that they can and should apply,” says Blair Corcoran de Castillo, senior director at Opportunity@Work, which advocates for redesigned hiring practices. Not mentioning degree requirements in the description is ambiguous and can deter qualified workers.

Recruit proactively

“You can’t have a passive recruitment approach because folks who have traditionally been shut out of these roles may not know where to look for them,” says Corcoran de Castillo. Look outside your typical talent pools and beyond four-year institutions to high schools, community colleges, and workforce training programs outside the traditional education system.

Don’t put the onus on the applicant

Corcoran de Castillo notes that both companies and workers are new at skills-based hiring, and employers can’t sit back and expect applicants to prove their qualifications without guidance. “Skills is a new language,” she says.

Employers can do their part by identifying the skills needed for the job and providing workers with specific opportunities to demonstrate them.

Rewrite your job descriptions and interview rubrics

Forget what you think a four-year degree means and be specific about the skills required to do the role, says Rosenblum. Your job descriptions should reflect the skills and competency, not credentials.

At social media tech company Buffer, head of communication and content Hailley Griffis says that to hire good writers, applicants must be evaluated on their writing samples, not their resumes. Buffer doesn’t require degrees for any of their positions, and instead weighs factors like work samples, industry understanding, and alignment with company values.

Measure your progress

Rosenblum advises tracking the effects of new hiring practices. Do applicants get hired? Do they stay? “Unless you track your data, you won’t know if anything is actually changing,” she says.

Change is hard, says Mona Mourshed, founder and CEO of nonprofit advocacy group Generation. Employers may resist skill-based hiring because they assume it won’t work in their organization. “We can have case studies and say, ‘Look at what’s happened in these remarkable stories,’ but unless you see it happening in your context, you may think, ‘That doesn’t apply to me.’” But you can wait for research, or you can act, she adds. “The next step is not to do more research,” she says. Companies and managers can start now—and find what benefits they gain when they lose the degree requirements.