It’s Time for Companies to Drop Needless Degree Requirements

The Great Recession, a massive economic downturn from 2007 to 2009, had a major impact on our economy and the lives of many Americans. Almost nine million people lost their jobs and their livelihoods. But the damage didn’t end there. During and after the recession, the U.S. job market saw a major shift. Because so many people with four-year college degrees were looking for work, some companies started requiring degrees for jobs that previously had not required them. Companies believed this practice could be a cost-efficient way to “upgrade” their talent. But they were wrong—not only did this trend hurt many well-qualified, industrious people looking for work, it also hurt the companies.

Degree Inflation” Disproportionately Affects Frontline Workers

Dismissed by Degrees, an eye-opening study by Harvard Business School in partnership with Accenture and Grads for Life, brought attention to the practice of requiring degrees for jobs where they are not necessary, terming it “degree inflation.” The report’s authors highlighted the role of production supervisor to illustrate their point. Following the Great Recession, they found that sixty-seven percent of production supervisor job postings called for a bachelor’s degree, even though only sixteen percent of actual production supervisors at the time had one. That’s a big gap, and a very costly one for both companies and frontline workers.

Not only have companies found it harder to find talent, given that only one-third of the adult population holds a bachelor’s degree, but they are also paying significantly more for college graduates without any real increase in productivity. The majority of Americans seeking frontline employment carry an associate’s degree, have some college or have a high school diploma; these individuals are now locked out of good-paying jobs that could sustain a decent standard of living, and potentially lead to fulfilling careers. This, despite the fact that the jobs, themselves, haven’t changed, and the job-seekers are just as qualified to do them as they’ve always been. In fact, in our own research, frontline workers have told us that not being able to apply to jobs they know they can do, simply because they don’t have a bachelor’s degree, is one of the most frustrating aspects of their job search.

Here We Go Again—But this Time Companies Should Respond Differently

Just over a decade later, we find ourselves in the midst of another major economic downturn. The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on our economy, with the number of individuals claiming unemployment insurance reaching just over thirty-one million (non seasonally adjusted for the week ending July 18). However, we believe that better days lie ahead. We will overcome this pandemic and get our economy back on track and growing again. It’s our opportunity for a do-over: as we come out of this recession, companies can and must respond differently. Here are the top three things companies should do now in anticipation of the hiring to come:

  1. Critically Review Job Requirements. By reviewing job requirements, companies can identify those jobs that actually do, or do not, require college degrees. And, in doing so, they will necessarily regain access to a larger talent pool. 
  2. Be More Deliberate in Hiring Practices. Instead of using degrees or educational attainment as a proxy for competency, identify and seek out the relevant experience and hard and soft skills required for the job. 
  3. Leverage Talent Management Strategies. Return to the fundamentals, using training experiences and development opportunities to groom employees. This will result in not only a stronger workforce, but a more invested and committed one, as well.

Workers and Companies Will Benefit

While benefits to frontline workers may seem obvious (e.g., access to additional opportunities for growth and advancement), companies also benefit from taking steps to undo degree inflation. First, they will spend less to get talent that can perform just as well as degreed candidates. Second, their ability to fill roles more quickly will drastically improve, as the size of their talent pool increases virtually overnight. Third, addressing degree inflation will improve engagement among their existing frontline workforce, as new career paths, previously unavailable, become possible. All of these result in lower overall costs to the company and improved output long-term: it’s a win for everyone.