When designing a recruiting and hiring process, few employers would intentionally build a system that automatically excludes qualified candidates. But new research indicates that’s what sometimes happens with employers seeking middle-skills workers. Such a system hurts not just the jobseeker but also the employer hoping to attract and retain productive employees from a variety of backgrounds.
The research, released in October and titled Dismissed by Degrees: How degree inflation is undermining U.S. competitiveness and hurting America’s middle class, claims that more than 6 million middle-skills jobs in the United States are at risk of “degree inflation”—the practice of preferring or requiring a college degree for jobs that were traditionally held by middle-skills workers.
For the report, researchers at Harvard Business School, Accenture, and Grads of Life analyzed more than 26 million job postings and found that the degree gap—the discrepancy between the demand for a college degree in job postings and the employees currently in that job who have a college degree—is significant.
“For example, in 2015, 67% of production supervisor job postings asked for a college degree, while only 16% of employed production supervisors had one,” the report’s executive summary states.
The problem is especially pronounced for certain segments of the population. “Degree inflation particularly hurts populations with college graduation rates lower than the national average, such as Blacks and Hispanics, age 25 years and older,” according to the executive summary. The problem is especially severe for what the report calls “Opportunity Youth,” the nearly 6 million young adults who are currently not in school or in jobs.
Impact on employers
Gary M. Green, president of Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, has seen the effects of degree inflation and says it’s particularly common among employers needing employees with higher order technical skills and the social and communication skills needed in a team-oriented work environment.
Green says he’s seen employers in clinical health, information technology, early childhood education, and some positions in advanced manufacturing (manufacturing driven by science and technology) seek employees with bachelor’s degrees even when those with associate degrees or certificates often would have more hands-on learning experiences.
“An example is degree inflation of health careers where RN nurses and licensed health technicians (imaging and therapeutic techs) are increasingly required by hospitals due to accreditation standards they wish to meet,” Green says. “In metropolitan areas, employers, usually hospitals, see a competitive marketing advantage with a more highly educated staff.”
Cybersecurity is another area affected. Green says the National Institute of Standards and Technology estimates a need for one and a half million skilled technicians over the next five years. “A bachelor’s degree is now the typical required credential for employment, but the baccalaureate pipeline is not large enough to meet the need,” he says. “Thus the shortage grows.”
Why the bias, and is it changing?
If degree requirements that often aren’t necessary make filling important positions difficult, why does the practice continue? “I think there are several reasons for the bias toward inflated degree requirements,” Green says. “During the recession, bachelor’s degree recipients were readily available and required a minimal salary premium.”
Another reason is related to the fact that senior managers and HR leaders “typically come from a four-year college background and have little experience with community college and other workforce system preparation,” Green says. Also, employers like to limit the amount of training needed for the workers they hire and a bachelor’s degree is often seen as “a proxy for job preparation.”
Green says employers are beginning to recognize the value of other forms of job preparation, but certain aspects of the system many employers use to fill positions work against changing the trend toward degree inflation. “For example, the prevalent use of automated screening of applicants for degrees makes it difficult for other qualified candidates to emerge,” he says.
But community colleges, employers, and community organizations such as chambers of commerce and economic development organizations are coming together to address workforce shortages, including finding ways to diversify workforce preparation, Green says.
Effect on diversity
Getting past degree inflation can make positions easier to fill by opening up a needed talent pool, but that’s not the only reason to rethink degree requirements. Fighting degree inflation also can help employers achieve a diverse and inclusive workforce.
“With the majority of African-American and Hispanic/Latino college students in community colleges and the lack of equity in the award of bachelor’s degrees in four-year colleges and universities, employers are unlikely to address their goals of inclusiveness with increasing degree inflation,” Green says.
Justifying degree requirements
Even though the researchers behind the new report find reasons to be concerned about four-year degree requirements for many jobs, such requirements are often justified – even for jobs that once didn’t require a full college education. Green says sometimes jobs “outgrow the traditional preparation.” For example, “technology – robotics, artificial intelligence, coding, etc., – has created new jobs and morphed current jobs” into positions that may indeed require a bachelor’s degree.
However, HR leaders need to consider the knowledge, skills, and abilities required for positions and think about how “different levels of education and experience can contribute to overall organizational success,” Green says. For example, “health care has a good model for organizing work with its ‘scope of practice’ concept, making the most of the capability of differing levels of job preparation.”
Recommendations for employers
The Dismissed by Degrees report lists a number of recommendations to overcome problems caused by degree inflation. Among them:
- Employers can invest in talent management pipelines that match jobs to workers with the right competencies and experience. “Instead of seeking college graduates who command a premium for doing a middle-skills job, such an approach allows companies to access middle-skills workers who are often just as productive, who demonstrate higher levels of engagement and who have a lower propensity to switch employers,” the report’s executive summary suggests.
- CEOs can tap into local and nontraditional talent pools instead of investing in labor-displacing capital equipment or in incurring costs associated with outsourcing or offshoring business activities.
- Employers can be more deliberate in their hiring practices for middle-skills jobs by not relying “on proxies like educational attainment to define the applicant pool.”
- Companies can widen their search to include nongraduates with relevant experience or partner with community-based organizations to tap populations like Opportunity Youth.
- Employers can revisit specifications and identify the key competencies of a job and then match them to associate degrees, certificates, or internal training programs.
- Companies should “measure the all-in economics of degree inflation,” the report’s summary says. That can show the cost-effectiveness of hiring nongraduates and then providing training customized to the company’s needs.
- Companies, educators, and policymakers can work together to change how middle-skills workers are prepared to enter the workforce. “That requires partnering with high schools, vocational colleges, community colleges and workforce training programs to influence the curriculum and design programs that impart the hard and soft skills required in increasingly complex middle-skills jobs,” the summary states.