Learning & Development

School or Skills: How Employers Feel About ‘Tearing the Paper Ceiling’

In the fall of 2022, a coalition of nearly 50 organizations launched the “Tear the Paper Ceiling” campaign in an effort to convince employers to shed degree requirements for certain jobs. The thinking goes that such requirements are often unnecessary and not only make hiring more difficult than it has to be but also hold back qualified and deserving jobseekers. Just over a year later, researchers are evaluating how the effort is going.

Why Tear the Paper Ceiling?

With the proliferation of online application systems, employers often are inundated with applications when they post open jobs. Many cope with the deluge by immediately filtering out all applicants without a four-year college degree.

But there are downsides to that approach, and people ranging from applicants to business executives to government officials are taking notice.

At its September 2022 launch, the Tear the Paper Ceiling campaign noted that more than 70 million workers in the U.S. had developed skills through community college, workforce training, bootcamps, certificate programs, military service, or on-the-job learning instead of through traditional four-year college experiences.

Tear the Paper Ceiling advocates tout the value of those workers, calling them STARS—those who are Skilled Through Alternative Routes.

The campaign gained the support of heavy hitters including major employers as well as organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, LinkedIn, McKinsey & Company, and the Society for Human Resource Management.

“College is a wonderful bridge to opportunity for millions, but it should never be a drawbridge excluding anyone who doesn’t cross it from thriving careers,” Opportunity@Work CEO Byron Auguste said at the campaign’s launch.

State legislatures also have gotten in on the action. At least 13 states have removed degree requirements for certain roles in state government, according to a June report from The Brookings Institution.

Signs of Change

But are private-sector employers taking up the trend? LinkedIn reported in August that talent professionals with its paid recruiter licenses were searching for candidates by their skills five times more often than by their degrees.

Also, an analysis of LinkedIn job posts showed that employers were increasingly advertising roles without professional degree requirements. For its analysis, LinkedIn defined “professional degree” as any postsecondary degree beyond an associate degree.

Throughout 2019, just over 20% of paid job posts on LinkedIn did not require a professional degree. The picture had changed by 2022, when almost 30% of paid job posts did not include degree requirements.

The analysis showed that posts without degree requirements are growing at a faster rate than the growth of posts with degree requirements, but not all job sectors are seeing the same change.

The LinkedIn analysis found that financial services, food services, and tech industries were leading the fields where job posts without degree requirements were growing faster than posts with stricter listings.

But What Does the Change Mean?

LinkedIn noted that dropping degree requirements in job posts didn’t necessarily result in more hires of people without four-year degrees.

“In fact, some of the spaces with the greatest increase in degree-less job posts (for example, the tech industry) are actually seeing some of the smallest growth in new hires without professional degrees,” LinkedIn reported in an August blog post.

The LinkedIn blog post points to “a job market in transition” where the move toward “skills, not schools” shows up in job postings, but “actual hiring behaviors haven’t necessarily caught up.”

The analysis points to a gap between recruiters and hiring managers. “While recruiters are increasingly searching for candidates by skills, rather than degrees, and degree requirements are disappearing from many job posts, it seems that hiring managers—who typically make the final hiring decision—are still predominantly hiring those with professional degrees, whether or not that’s actually required for the job,” the LinkedIn report says.

In November, Intelligent.com reported that 45% of companies it surveyed planned to eliminate bachelor’s degree requirements for some positions in 2024. That follows 55% of companies that eliminated such requirements in 2023.

Value of College

Of course, college degrees are essential for many jobs and desirable for many more. According to the Intelligent.com announcement, higher education and career adviser Diane Gayeski says, “A bachelor’s degree is much more than preparation for an entry-level job. It prepares people for a full life, including exploring what areas of employment might be a good fit for the immediate and long-term future.”

The Association of American Colleges and Universities teamed with Hanover Research in October 2020 to produce a report titled “How College Contributes to Workforce Success” and found the following key takeaways:

  • Completion of active and applied learning experiences gives job applicants a clear advantage.
  • Both breadth and depth of learning are needed for long-term career success.
  • Employers see room for improvement in the preparation of college graduates for work.

Tammy Binford is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.

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