When Degree Requirements Don’t Matter

The low unemployment rate is prompting some HR professionals to consider diverse candidates

By Karen J. Bannan January 29, 2020
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older woman getting hired

​Heavy-construction firm OHL North America has a strong campus recruiting program and hires graduates from some of the top engineering programs across the country. However, in recent years, the company has widened its net, considering graduates with non-civil-engineering degrees. OHL looks at applicants with any kind of engineering degree—mechanical, electrical, materials—for field or project engineering positions, and it is even more flexible when recruiting for other positions, said Adam Ingber, OHL's chief human resources officer.

"You want to be a cost engineer? Typically, we would like a civil engineer in that position, but now we'll look at people from all different types of backgrounds," he said. "We'll look at people with business backgrounds, for instance, or finance and accounting. We'll also look at someone who has an MBA who never even thought of working in construction, because they can help us improve systems and process and process analysis."

The company is currently hiring a proposal manager and is willing to look at candidates with English or liberal arts degrees, Ingber said. This departure from a single-degree recruitment strategy to a more diverse one is slowly catching on across the country, and the results are promising.

"Just in the last couple of years, there's been a significant increase in the number of employers who are becoming school- and even major-agnostic," explained Steven Rothberg, founder of College Recruiter, a job search website for recent graduates. "Employers are finally realizing that what they used to call requirements are actually preferences. Why? It's simply a lot harder to hire people. Employers have a choice: Hire a less-than-perfect person in a few weeks or a month and train them, or wait six months or more for a perfect person."

Rothberg added that, according to HR data, those less-than-perfect new hires are often just as productive—if not more productive—than degree-specific hires.

Getting What You Need

Speed of hire aside, there are myriad reasons that making non-degree-specific hires is a good idea. Diversity is one of the most significant benefits, said Jeff Hyman, an adjunct professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and author of Recruit Rockstars (Lioncrest Publishing, 2017).

"Obviously, a more diverse workforce—gender, age, race, sexual preference—has many advantages. For instance, you're not going to find as many female computer science majors [as male], but if you open up your programming hires to other majors, you're going to get more women on your team who, when you add them to the mix, make for a better product and a more empathetic work culture," he said.

You may also save your company a significant amount of money while creating a more productive workforce. In computer programming, hiring someone from a certain school who has a certain computer science degree is going to be more expensive than hiring a liberal arts graduate who may turn out to be a better programmer, Hyman explained.

"When you're developing software, candidates from a traditional computer science background think similarly. That liberal arts major is taught to think differently, ask different questions and take a different approach to problem-solving. In the end, they're not only coming up with the right code, but they may also be thinking about intangibles, like marketing and sales."

Kimberly Betz, the executive director of the Center for Career Development at Princeton University, agreed. "We've known all along that the skills students learn [in a good degree program], regardless of their major, are applicable," she said. "The majority of students know how to learn and are quick and adept at learning new skills. It's much easier to train someone to do a specific job or task than to teach someone how to do research, think critically and communicate with others." 

Those new hires may also stick around longer, Rothberg said. Employees who are hired from top schools with extremely desirable degrees may be poached away quickly or simply leave after a year or two. Those with degrees not directly related to their job field often put down deeper roots and feel more loyalty to a company that took a chance on them, he said. "Instead of leaving after two years, they might stick around for five or 10."

Asking the Right Questions

To find the best candidates for OHL, Ingber said he looks for resumes that highlight achievements, as well as candidates' interpersonal skills and what they like to do outside of work.

"I'm looking for people who are leading groups at their college, and I don't care if that means they're the leader of the chess club," he said. "If I see someone who is a leader, I'm more likely to make a spot for them."

One person on his team is a good example of how well this approach can work. The woman, who had no experience in human resources or recruiting, had a degree in urban studies and planning. However, her resume, which included waitressing experience, put Ingber at ease.

"Depending on the type of restaurant you're working at, if you want to make money, you have to have some sort of sales intuition or sales skill. I could tell she would have a good attitude on the phone and be someone who could sell our company on the phone."

Betz said volunteer experience and group projects are also a good indicator of how well someone can work within a team and learn new things. Studying abroad, participating in clubs and activities, and having taken opportunities for learning and growth that fall outside the candidate's degree program can help a candidate be well-rounded.

"If I'm looking for a salesperson who doesn't have a business degree or an MBA, participation in a debate club may mean that person has the skills we need anyway," Hyman said. Finally, consider tapping professors and other school administrators for job candidate recommendations, he said.

Karen J. Bannan is a freelance writer based in New York.

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