No Degree, No Problem

Updating the approach to candidate qualifications

By Amy Gulati Oct 22, 2015
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Professional services firms Ernst & Young (EY), Deloitte, and PricewaterhouseCoopers made headlines recently when their U.K. affiliates publicized the decision to de-emphasize formal education in the recruitment process. Deloitte will be hiding the name of the candidate’s university from recruiters in its search for entry-level talent. EY went so far as to eliminate the requirement of a college degree altogether. Both these firms cited the need to diversify their talent pool as the impetus for their policy shift, as well as a desire to focus on the candidate attributes that positively correlate with strong job performance.

“This makes sense for some roles, but not for others,” said Amy Stark, practice director for talent acquisition at Helios HR, a human capital consulting firm based in the Washington, D.C., area. She explained that some positions, particularly in financial services, may still necessitate a degree to get hired because they require a certification that an individual cannot obtain without a college degree. In most states, for example, individuals must have a four-year degree to sit for the certified public accountant exam.

Peter Cappelli, the George W. Taylor Professor of Management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, agreed that there are certain positions where a college degree may be necessary “if the job skills are learned in school.”

For most jobs, however, previous relevant experience is a much better predictor of success than having a particular degree. A maintenance engineer, for example, “didn’t learn how to fix a boiler in school, [he or she] learned that on the job,” Stark said. For this reason, she counsels clients and hiring managers to look beyond education and accept experience in lieu of a degree.

Yet some companies have countered that while a degree may not be necessary to perform entry-level work, they want to hire candidates who can be promoted internally to more senior positions where a college education would be necessary.

While this explanation may seem logical and even benign on its face, Cappelli cautioned that employers that rely on this type of policy open themselves up to claims of disparate treatment. Cappelli referenced the landmark Supreme Court case Griggs v. Duke Power Co., in which the court ruled that education requirements cannot be prospective in nature and can only be applied for the employee’s or applicant’s current role.

Increasing employee diversity was a reason given by both EY and Deloitte for re-evaluating their policies on education. But if a directive to diversify comes from the board of directors, that’s as far as it will go, said Bill Ingram, executive vice president of Seven Step RPO. “Diversity and inclusion initiatives work best when they’re organic and in response to legitimate business need, as opposed to a corporate mandate.” In other words, people at all levels need to understand the tangible benefits of inclusion in order to shift company culture.

For organizations that may be looking to update their approach to candidate qualifications, here are some tips from the experts:

  • Be data driven. “The best way to create a policy or behavior change is to rely on the evidence,” Cappelli said. Analyze your hiring metrics against performance metrics and quantitatively demonstrate to hiring managers where your company sources the best talent. The results may be surprising.
  • Focus on the outcomes of a particular job and not the qualifications. Stark recommended asking hiring managers what they want the person in the role to accomplish, “thereby moving the conversation away from qualifications to how success will be measured.” After all, plenty of soft skills cannot be learned at school or recorded on paper.
  • Get creative about employee training. Ingram encourages talent acquisition professionals and hiring managers to think holistically about ways that workers become qualified in the skills necessary to do a job. He pointed out that apprenticeship programs might prove to be very effective training in certain industries where critical skills can’t be learned in a degree program. Further, Ingram emphasized that these programs can buy loyalty from employees and increase retention, which are primary concerns any time a company invests in talent development.

When proposing a change to the company’s standard education requirements, it is important to be prepared with other valid and reliable means of selecting candidates. After all, the goal is not to lower hiring standards, it’s to focus on the methods of assessment that directly relate to job performance. For example, EY has been very clear that it will still require candidates to undergo prehire assessments.

Stark noted that some companies could find it “potentially costly to create assessments that replace the level of surety that comes from a degree.” And yet as the cost of attending university continues to outpace inflation, it is probably somewhat inevitable that more companies and candidates will question the value of academic degrees.

Amy Gulati, SHRM-SCP, is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area.

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