Hiring criteria: Is it time to let go of degree requirements?
Interviews / Opinions

Hiring criteria: Is it time to let go of degree requirements?


Your job ad serves two purposes. It’s there to sell your open role. And it’s there to sell your brand. Yes, you want to attract the “right” candidates. But in a competitive hiring market, you also need to give the best of those candidates a strong reason to apply.

Hold that thought.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few genuine job ads that might (just might) have got it all wrong.


Misguided ad no 1.

The first ad claims to be looking for a “Cafe Manager” to work “permanently, with no restriction on hours” in a “busy cafe in Cheltenham, Australia.” As well as being “an all-rounder who’s hard-working, honest, friendly and motivated,” applicants are required to have “1 year’s experience working as a barista”.

So far, so reasonable.

The longlist is looking healthy. Until the next requirement is revealed: A Doctoral degree (subject unspecified). Suddenly, even a decent shortlist of candidates is looking unlikely.


Misguided ad no 2.

The second ad’s from a tech start-up looking for a Manufacturing Engineer to fill an “entry-level” role in a “leading technology innovation company.” The ideal candidate, they’re clear, is a “motivated, self-starter” with a “strong mechanical aptitude,” a familiarity with “tooling and fixing fabrication,” and experience of “assembly and machining process flows.”

But, be warned, they must also be “capable of tackling the hardest missions” and have “extraordinary amounts of courage, resilience, and precision.” Oh, and a Ph.D. with evidence of post-doctoral research experience.


Spot the common denominator? Yes, both ads demonstrate a determined and unwavering requirement for candidates to have a degree in order to do the job. Even when soft skills, practical experience, and mental fortitude seem to be the real measures of success.

True, these are extreme examples. But their approach isn’t uncommon. In fact, up until recently, most employers have included, almost by default, a degree qualification for all higher to middle-skill roles.

The tide is, however, turning. And businesses that still stick to their academic (albeit unconscious and unintentional) bias now risk being branded as outdated. And losing the interest of the few qualified candidates that pass their rigorous hiring criteria.

So, what’s behind the shift? And why now? Let’s take a look.

What’s in a degree?

We hinted at it earlier, but let’s be clear; most organizations don’t insist on degree-level qualifications because of intellectual snobbery. After all, your hiring managers need to shortlist somehow. And asking for a degree is an easy, quick, and practical way of doing that.

Using a “yes” or “no” tick box on a form, for example, means applicants without the relevant formal credentials can be quickly filtered out. Which speeds up the hiring process and saves on costs and resourcing.

There’s also the fact that college qualifications are absolutely essential for a number of highly specialized roles. You wouldn’t, for example, want a surgeon without the right formal medical qualifications performing your heart bypass. Or, an attorney without complete and compliant legal training representing you in a lawsuit.

But this mutual dependency has, over time, been extended to other white-collar roles. And not just those (like law or medicine) where the requirements are mandated in law. The assumption being, if you’re applying for a job at a certain level or pay grade, you must have been to college or university.

Let’s not forget, too, that studying for, and completing, a degree also indicates a certain level of motivation and dedication. And requires a diverse set of soft skills. All of which can be useful in the workplace.

Given all of that, it’s easy to see how the precedent for including degree qualifications in job specs and hiring criteria was set. It is, after all, grounded in logic and pragmatism. And for that reason, it’s become the unquestioned “norm” for most businesses for a long time now.

But is it fair to use this approach now? And is it in the best interests of businesses and candidates?

Time to debunk the myth.


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Why it’s right to ditch degree requirements: The case for the prosecution

It’s true that certain professions will always need to set firm and fixed academic markers when hiring. But for the majority of jobs, removing that one barrier to entry has the potential to open other doors.

Let’s see what’s behind them.

A wider talent pool

Did you know, only 36% of Americans have a degree, yet 65% of US job ads list it as a mandatory requirement?

Add to the equation the fact that unemployment in the US is currently at an all-time low (69% of all US employers are struggling to fill open roles), and it doesn’t take a degree in math to know that those figures don’t add up.

When it comes to recruitment, peace of mind equals having a rich pipeline. Because lots of applicants means lots of choice. Plus, a better chance of making a successful hire.

Removing the degree requirement from the application process changes things instantly. Suddenly you’ve got more candidates in your pipeline. And more chances of finding your ideal fit.

But are you compromising on quality by removing degrees from your hiring criteria? Good question. Let’s look at the answer.

Candidates with the right skills for the job

Broadening your talent pool is all well and good, but is that pool full of people who can actually do the job. And do it well.

Let’s look at the details. Most jobs require skills. And the ability to complete certain tasks. Having studied a subject in-depth may be a good way to acquire theoretical understanding and reasoning. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into the skills required in the workplace.

Besides, a candidate may have a degree but earned it years, if not decades ago. Which means knowledge is likely to be outdated.

The interesting thing, too, is only a quarter of graduates are actually doing a job that relates to their major. Which indicates that it’s either experience and mindset that matters most to employers or simply being a graduate.

Broaden your talent pool beyond simply “being a graduate,” and you tap into a rich resource of highly qualified prospects. Over 70 million Americans (around 50% of the country’s active labor force) have acquired valuable skills through apprenticeships, community colleges, or simply by learning on the job.

Rusty Rueff discusses on the fifth episode of TalentLMS’ podcast, Keep It Simple, that different career paths bring diversity to the workplace. Employers should look at skills and experience, not just formal education. Having advanced degrees doesn’t always mean the work is more challenging.

Rasty Reuff on non-linear career

Drop the graduate requirement, use a skills-based framework to set your hiring criteria instead, and you get to take your pick.

An opportunity to address the imbalance

Equal access to education doesn’t exist. Just one-fifth of students from low-income families make it to college. Minority groups, women, and other underrepresented groups are also less likely to study beyond high school. Many go to college because they have the means to do so, rather than a standout ability in a specific field.

Hiring without academic bias is a meaningful way of addressing this imbalance. It’s a way for HR leaders to take affirmative action to “improve the employment or educational opportunities of members of minority groups and women.” (Merriam-Webster definition).

It’s not one-sided either. As well as enabling marginalized workers to get higher-paying jobs, employers benefit, too. Time to talk diversity.

A culturally rich, more diverse workforce

Diversity makes companies stronger because it brings new ideas, perspectives, experiences, and approaches to an organization.

As well as nurturing a positive internal culture, a diverse workforce also has an impact externally. It puts you in a better position to understand your customers’ needs and design ways to meet them. And it elevates your brand and your reputation. When it comes to hiring best practices, it’s one of the most important ones to adhere to.

Building rigid (and unnecessary) requirements into your hiring process damages diversity. It tends to lead to homogenous teams with limited outlooks and limited creativity.

Another reason to ditch the degree from your hiring criteria.

A future-proof approach to hiring

The corporate landscape is changing. Digital advances are already transforming how we work. And they’re now beginning to affect what we work on too. Stats suggest that over the next few decades
65% of jobs will be roles that haven’t even been invented yet.

To stand a chance of surviving in the future, businesses need to frame their hiring process around this uncertainty. Which means targeting candidates who have the so-called “soft skills” to adapt and thrive in a changing world.

And hiring tech-driven multi-skilled specialists with the experience, interests, and motivation to drive this new world forwards. Having a degree simply won’t cut it.

Hiring criteria: What's the alternative to degree requirements?

What’s the alternative?

Before we completely dismiss degrees, let’s not forget the important role they currently play in shortlisting candidates. If you’re hiring at scale and want to hire right the first time around, it’s vital to have an effective way of screening candidates before they reach the interview stage.

So, what other hiring criteria can you use?

Depending on the role, aptitude, competency, or other skills-based tests are a good alternative. Delivered online as part of the early stages of recruitment, results of these can be automated and used to split candidates into “yes,” “no,” or “maybe” groups.

You can also include technical or job-related qualifications (trade or technical school diplomas, for example) as part of your shortlisting criteria.

Of course, if you’re committed to hiring for potential and diversity, you need to think about recruitment marketing and outreach, too. Rather than simply posting on job boards, you’ll need a more creative and proactive approach.

Social media tools are a great way to build communities and networks and reach new groups of people. And a good way to source from underrepresented groups is to target technical colleges or trade schools. You can also get in touch with alumni groups and other local community organizations in locations you’ve pinpointed.

And you’ll need to think about upskilling, as well. Once hired, offering apprenticeships, skills bootcamps, internal training programs, and other accredited schemes is a good way to provide your new hires with formal qualifications. These can then act as currency for future job applications or internal promotions.

But be prepared, one of the biggest challenges you’ll face when doing all of this is tackling misconceptions. Used to facing barriers, and a hiring process that has for so long favored the fortunate, you’ll need to shout loud about your new approach to your new pool of prospects. And keep shouting until they hear, understand, and believe.

Just because, just isn’t good enough

The thing is, rightly or wrongly, academic qualifications limit your talent pool. They create an unhealthy hiring bias by giving precedence to a privileged few. And they won’t help you find “the best person for the job.” Or, for your company.

In today’s fast-moving job market, skills, mindset, and potential are the future. And ditching degree requirements really does have the power to transform society, improve lives and build more successful businesses.

So you have to work out if they’re essential, or if they’re there just… because. If the answer is “just…because,” then it’s time to rethink your strategy.


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