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A Matter of Degrees: How Skills-Based Hiring Can Help Narrow America's Wealth Gap

An interview with Maurice Jones, CEO of the nonprofit OneTen, on why employers should focus more on applicants' skills than on whether they have college degrees.

A man in a suit and tie smiling.

Maurice Jones is the CEO of OneTen, a nonprofit aiming to advance one million Black individuals without four-year degrees into well-paying careers. People + Strategy Articles Editor Adam Bryant spoke with Jones about how employers who focus on skills and competencies in recruiting—rather than on college degrees—can improve their quality-of-hire and ignite potential for generations to come.

People + Strategy: What's the backstory that led to the creation of OneTen?  

Maurice Jones: I'll take you back to 2020, when the pandemic started. In those early months, the impact on communities of color and Black communities was disproportionately adverse. That was followed by a recession, which also had a disproportionately adverse impact on Black talent and other talent of color. 

And then we had a series of shootings—Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and then the murder of George Floyd in broad daylight, which was broadcast all over the world while we were all sheltering in place. Those events really moved people, and it continues to move people to this day. And more people started asking the question, "Are we as good as we think we are as a country? Are we as good as we can be?"

A handful of corporate CEOs asked and answered that question by saying that we're not as good as we can be. They decided that they wanted to do something about these incredible disparities that were pulling us apart and that were keeping us from becoming a more perfect union. They focused on jobs because their view was that the private sector creates jobs as well or better than any other sector.  

When they started studying jobs data, a few things really caught their eye. One was that if you look at jobs that pay $60,000 or more in our country, about 79 percent of those jobs require that you have a four-year degree just to compete for the job. And if you look at all jobs that pay $40,000 or more, 71 percent require a four-year degree to compete.

When you look at Black talent age 25 and older in the workforce today, you will find that 76 percent of us do not yet have a four-year degree. That really led them to this aspiration for OneTen. Their conclusion was that we have a systemic barrier in the form of a credential that literally keeps people from earning their way into the middle class. 

That requirement creates barriers for everyone. The percentage of white talent without a four-year degree age 25 and older in the workforce today is 66 percent. It's 83 percent for Latinx. 

So we've got a systemic barrier across all demographics, and the private sector can do something about it. So they set a goal of hiring, promoting and advancing one million Black people who don't have four-year degrees into family-sustaining jobs and careers over a 10-year period. 

A handful of executives came together—Ken Frazier from Merck; Ginni Rometty from IBM; Kevin Sharer, the former CEO of Amgen; Ken Chenault, who had been the CEO of American Express; and Charles Phillips, who had worked in senior leadership roles at companies such as Oracle—and decided that we're going to enlist our peers and colleagues in the corporate sector to go after this goal. And that's how OneTen was born.

P+S: What is your playbook at OneTen to achieve this goal? 

Jones: It's not enough just for companies to embrace the idea of focusing on skills first rather than always requiring a four-year degree. You need a high-functioning ecosystem for this to work. You need companies that have the jobs to be willing to remove the four-year degree requirements. You also need the talent to be ready for work, and so you need help from the organizations that can help make that talent ready, such as community colleges, coding bootcamps, and military-transition and apprenticeship programs. iStock-1167534525.jpg

Lastly, you need the support systems that the talent needs outside of a job in order to be successful—transportation and childcare that is accessible and affordable, for example. Our job is to knit together that ecosystem and to scale it. So we're the intermediary trying to make matches between talent supply and demand, using a technology platform to bring these people together. We're also the intermediary that's recruiting childcare enterprises and others to provide support for the talent. We're also the ones trying to vet and recruit talent development organizations to help make the talent work-ready. And we are measuring our successes. 

For example, from March 2021, when we really got started, to the end of September 2022, we hired and promoted more than 73,000 Black talent without four-year degrees into family-sustaining jobs at the member companies of OneTen. What we want to do over time is to track the increase in wealth in Black communities in the communities where OneTen is operating. 

Ultimately, we're trying to narrow this wealth gap in our country that largely breaks down along lines of race and place. And that gap is severe. Published data shows that there is a 10x difference in the wealth of white families in America versus the wealth of Black families in America. 

P+S: Where are you on the optimism-pessimism scale about real and lasting change taking place? 

Jones: I am definitely optimistic. Think about what's going on now. You have a private sector-led movement called OneTen that is unambiguously and unabashedly focused on the racial wealth gap and attempting to close it, and you've got almost 75 CEOs who have committed their companies to join this effort. And they're committing to doing this for 10 years. 

This skills-first momentum I'm seeing is really starting to spread across the private sector, which is motivated to act for a number of reasons, one of which is they need more workers. They need talent from different places than they're getting talent now. 

There's no question we need the public and private sector to work together on this. But what is most encouraging for me is the private sector stepping up and saying, yes, this is our responsibility, our opportunity. 

P+S: What might slow that momentum?

Jones: We're probably going to see a recession this year, which inevitably will chill some hiring. A long-term risk stems from the fact that the CEOs who are committing themselves and their companies to this work right now probably won't all be in their roles in 10 years. So leadership transitions are a risk in our journey because it has become abundantly clear that the most important ingredient to success here is leadership. 

P+S: How does your work at OneTen connect with you at a personal level?

Jones: This is intimately connected with my life. I was raised by grandparents. My grandfather was born in 1914, and my grandmother was born in 1919. We were farmers and sawmill workers in a rural town in Virginia. My grandfather went to school for six years in a barn and then, mostly because of his color, he couldn't go any further than that. He had to go out and go to work.  

My grandmother, who lived close to town, was able to walk to the local segregated school for coloreds, as we were called then, and get her high school diploma. Neither one of them was able to go beyond that because of their race, and because of what our country was at that time.  

They raised my mother, and they raised me. I owe them everything I have. And so when I go to work for OneTen every day, I go to work for my grandparents. 

They were the most brilliant, transformative, loving people in my life, and I certainly wouldn't be here talking to you but for them. So this is certainly a professional journey, but it's even more powerful for me on a spiritual and personal front.

P+S: Given the startling data points that you shared about how the requirement of college degrees shuts out so many people, I wonder whether decades from now people will look and wonder, in effect, what were we thinking?

Jones: I don't think it's going to take that long. I think companies are already having those epiphanous moments. Here's an example: I was talking to a company that was trying to hire people to do coding jobs, and they had a four-year degree requirement for those jobs. So, on paper, I would be more competitive for getting an interview for that job, because of my BA in political science, than someone who did an eight-week bootcamp in coding.  

So here is an alert for all companies: If you interview me for a coding job before you interview somebody who completed an eight-week coding bootcamp, you have a dangerous business practice. So that moment is now, and companies are looking at their policies and saying, "What were we thinking?" 

And, by the way, it turns out that skills are five times better at predicting success on the job than education, and skills are two-and-a-half-times better at predicting success on the job than experience. And for employers who focus on skills instead of credentials, that means they are not paying a premium for a credential that isn't necessarily relevant to the job. More and more companies understand the business case now. It's powerful. 


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