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Why Skills-Based Hiring Should Be a Priority in Your Recruitment Strategy


With today's hiring climate, staying ahead of the curve is more important than ever when finding the best candidates for your organization. One way to stay ahead of the curve? Widen your candidate pool by putting less of an emphasis on education.

Given that many skills required for most jobs can be quickly confirmed through pre-employment testing, certification, references, and employment history, why do so many employers still require degrees? Requiring degrees for most roles within your organization is outdated and an easy way to miss out on some of the most applicable and best talent.


What is Degree Inflation?

Degree inflation refers to the growing number of employers requiring their candidates to have a college degree to be considered for a job offer. Suddenly jobs that historically hadn't required degrees did, even though the jobs themselves hadn't changed at all. This trend started approximately in the early 2000s and continued to grow until it peaked in 2008-2009 during the Great Recession. At this point, government and organization leaders realized that something had to change. Shortly after, many organizations announced they would no longer require degrees for most roles, although it would be several years until we would start to see a true reset.


A Structural Change in Hiring

A study analyzing more than 51 million jobs between 2017 and 2020 by Harvard Business Review and Emsi Burning Glass found that employers are genuinely resetting degree requirements in many roles within their organization, but most notably during periods where demand for talent outreaches the supply of talent. Between 2017 and 2019, employers reduced degree requirements for 46% of middle-skill positions and 31% of high-skill jobs. The roles most affected were those in IT and managerial positions, which were hard to fill during that period.

A structural change to skills-based hiring versus education-focused employment will open the door to potential candidates excluded from more opportunities than they should have been because of degree inflation. While this will be an excellent opportunity for both candidates and employers, this shift still needs to continue moving forward. The Harvard and Emsi study mentioned above found that 37% of middle-skill jobs have had no reduction in degree requirements, meaning that 15.7 million people aren't included in the candidate pool. This seems unnecessary in a world where the demand for talent is greater than the seemingly available supply.

In a desperate urge to find skilled workers during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, many employers dropped the need for degree requirements for many jobs. Job postings for intensive-care and critical-care nurses requiring a bachelor's degree declined from 35% to 23% and degree requirements for registered nurses dropped by 5%. While this may have been a temporary accommodation, this still shows us that we can widen the candidate pool and find qualified talent outside of the usual restrictions. 


Limiting Your Candidate Pool to Specific Degree Requirements Negatively Impacts Your Hiring Needs

A Washington-based nonprofit promoting skilled workers through alternative routes called Opportunity@Work found that degree inflation cost workers 7.4 million jobs between 2000 and 2020. Although these workers weren't qualified with the typical education requirements, they had alternative experience, including skills learned on the job, in the military, training programs, courses at community colleges, and more. Luckily, the Burning Glass Institute has found that job postings with degree requirements have dropped significantly to 44% in 2021.

The reality is that limiting yourself to a pool of candidates with specific college degrees eliminates potential strong and highly skilled candidates who: 

  • May not have had access to higher education opportunities due to cost.
  • Have acquired the skills needed for a role in non-traditional ways. 

Hiring managers who genuinely want to find the right fit for their open roles should focus on talent-matching strategies based on applicable and verified skills instead of looking at what degree is listed on a candidate's resume. This strategy will help you find the right fit for your organization and help you stay in line with your DE&I initiatives and reduce bias within the application and hiring process.


Skills-Based Hiring Reduces Inequity Within the Talent Sourcing Process

Primarily considering a candidate based on education credentials instead of the candidate's skills is an outdated practice that mainly highlights candidates with more privilege than others. According to The Education Trust, approximately 24% of white Americans currently hold a bachelor's degree while only 14% of Black Americans do, and this gap widens even further for women of color. A skills-based approach to hiring can reduce inequity within the talent sourcing process and candidate pool.

Luckily, we seem to be moving towards a skills-based hiring approach more than ever. According to recent SHRM research, 79% of employers say that skills assessments and reviews are just as important (if not more) than traditional hiring criteria. Respondents to this survey have admitted to being willing to consider candidates without a college degree moving forward. Plus, 36% say a candidate who scores high on an assessment but doesn't meet the minimum years of experience will likely make it onto the list of final candidates.  


Final Thoughts

The structural change happening within sourcing and recruiting is significant for the future of hiring. By focusing on skills instead of education, you're increasing equity within the labor market. Opening opportunities to candidates who have had barriers in the past due to degree inflation or systemic bias, you're expanding the candidate pool for your organization, allowing you to hire the best talent.

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