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How Dropping the Degree Can Solve Your Recruiting Challenge

April 26, 2022 Talent Management
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By Sarah Fister Gale

Only 36 percent of US adults currently have a bachelor's degree. Yet, most job postings include a college degree as a requirement — or, at least, as a preference. Experts say it's a lazy approach to recruiting that may have been acceptable in an era where there were more applicants than jobs to fill. Those days are over.

Two years into the pandemic and companies are still struggling to find talent, particularly for technology roles where unemployment rates have dropped to just two percent. Recruiters and hiring managers can no longer expect college grads with multiple years of experience to come begging for an entry-level role because there are more jobs than graduates to fill them.

The latest strategy: dropping the college degree requirement. Here's how some companies are doing it.

Drop the Degree from Recruiting Ads

Most companies have understood by now that they must get creative in their recruiting strategy to attract the best talent in this tight labor market. Offering competitive pay no longer guarantees a better pool of applicants. Dropping the degree requirement from job postings, however, is a strategy that can open the floodgates of valuable applicants eager to work, making it easier for organizations to broaden their search and find hidden gems.

That’s a good thing for businesses, said Lara Bach, associate director of Grads of Life for Year Up, a free training program for young adults seeking professional skills. “It forces companies to adopt a skills-first approach to vetting candidates," she said.

But if dropping the degree is the way to go, that doesn't mean companies should simply strike the requirement from job postings and move on. Rather, they need to carefully think the recruiting process through: rewriting job descriptions, updating applicant tracking system filters, and training recruiters and managers on how to select candidates without using degrees as a proxy.

“It’s a paradigm shift that has to become part of the company culture,” Bach said. Otherwise, all of that potential raw talent will still get overlooked.

Related Article: 5 Strategies to Attract and Retain Talent in a Tight Labor Market

Change How Candidates Are Assessed

The best recruiting strategies focus on finding the right talent for the job. That starts with changing how applicants get assessed.

No matter how noble the effort to drop degrees, if companies don't update the filters in their applicant tracking system (ATS), some candidates will never be seen, said Joe Fuller, professor of management practice at Harvard, and co-author of Hidden Workers, a report on how leaders can improve hiring practices to uncover missed talent pools.

“The ATS acts a trip wire making all of those candidates disappear,” he said.

Using keyword filters like “bachelor’s degree” is not only a quick way to reduce the flood of applications, it also doesn’t necessarily deliver the best talent — or show recruiters and managers what other types of talent they could be considering.

“Recruiters need to be presented with diverse candidates throughout the selection process or they will never embrace a skills-based approach to hiring,” Fuller said.

Related Article: It's a Good Time to Be in Recruiting. Here's Why

Rewrite Job Descriptions to Focus on Skills and Traits

Instead, managers need to rewrite their job description around the hard skills, soft skills and experiences a candidate needs to thrive on the job. Along with specific technical skills, it should include traits that indicate a person will be a good fit for the job.

“When you take out the degree, you have to look further to determine the social skills, articulation, self-efficacy and attention to detail,” Fuller said.

Those skills can be more difficult to quantify but it doesn’t mean hiring has to be entirely subjective. There are many ways to measure and compare candidates using quantifiable tools that show recruiters what a candidate knows and how they will perform, said Megan Smith, head of HR for SAP Canada. “Though it is critical to follow a structured rubric,” she warned.

Related Article: Why Soft Skills Matter and How to Develop Them

Identify Essential Skills, Train for the Rest

At SAP, Smith encourages managers to define the core skills and experiences a candidate will need based on who is already successful in the role — and to be realistic. “Stop looking for unicorns,” she said.

Instead, she suggested identifying the handful of skills and traits that are essential, and recognizing that you may need to provide additional training or mentoring to fill some gaps. When those traits are identified, managers can work with recruiters to identify ways to measure them. This can include a combination of job tests, skills assessments, references and structured interviews, for instance.

“You don’t want to just ask broad questions, then pick who you like,” Smith said.

Using weighted assessment tests and structured interview questions allows managers to quantify a candidate’s skills and attributes, then compare them to the job description and other candidates. This way, they can objectively identify applicants most likely to succeed whether they have a degree or not.

Related Article: Digital Hiring May Become the Rule Instead of the Exception

Where to Start

Bach suggests starting with a recruiting pilot project targeting a few high-volume, mid-skill roles that require more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree.

“It’s a nice threshold to measure retention and performance,” she said. “If these roles are always hard to fill, you can see if the change results in a better candidate pool.”

Fuller also suggested that managers and recruiters reach out to community colleges, bootcamps and other local sources of non-traditional talent to understand how they train students to develop skills, whether they can match the skills the company seeks and how they might partner on training or recruiting events.

All of these efforts can help companies expand their talent pool and attract more diverse candidates, regardless of where they learned their craft.

“If you want to be competitive, you have to respond to what is happening in the market today,” Smith said. “A successful company understands the benefit of seeking talent everywhere.”


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