The requirements for a four-year college degree in employment are slowly easing

As a middle school student in New York, Chikina Griffiths watched a TV news report about President Barack Obama visiting an innovative school in Brooklyn. Her program included high school, an associate’s degree in a technical subject, an internship and the promise of a good job.

“I thought, ‘This is where I need to be,'” Mrs. Griffith recalls. “There aren’t many opportunities like that for people like me.”

I applied, was accepted and thrived on the courses. After school, an 18-month internship and apprenticeship, she became a full-time employee at IBM at the end of 2020. Today, 21-year-old Ms. Griffith is a cybersecurity technologist and earns more than $100,000 annually.

In the past few years, major US companies in every industry have vowed to change their hiring habits by opening the door to higher-paying jobs with career paths for people without four-year college degrees, like Ms. Griffiths. More than 100 companies have made commitments, including the Business Roundtable and OneTen multi-track program, which focuses on hiring and promoting black workers without college degrees into good jobs.

How have US companies done so far? There has been a gradual shift overall, according to a recent report and additional data provided by the Burning Glass Institute. But the research group’s analysis of each individual company highlights both the potential and the challenge of changing established hiring practices.

The Burning Glass Institute is an independent, nonprofit research center, using data from Emsi Burning Glass, a job market analytics firm. Researchers analyzed millions of online job listings, looking for four-year undergraduate degree requirements and trends. In 2017, 51 percent required certification. By 2021, that share had fallen to 44 percent.

Workforce experts see removing a four-year undergraduate degree candidate for some jobs as key to increasing diversity and reducing inequality. They say workers should be selected and promoted because of their skills and experience rather than their grades or educational pedigree. They add that companies that are changing their hiring practices are benefiting by tapping into talent pools that were previously overlooked in a tight job market, as well as diversifying their workforce.

Nearly two-thirds of American workers do not have a four-year college degree. College degree screening particularly affects minorities, eliminating 76 percent of black adults and 83 percent of Latino adults.

The analysis of burnt glass found that companies that cut back on earlier grade requirements typically started doing so before the pandemic. Nonprofit groups such as Opportunity@Work, founded in 2015, and the Markle Foundation’s Skillful Program, begun in 2016, have been urging companies to embrace skill-based hiring.

But the pandemic employment crisis and calls by American companies to address racial discrimination after the killing of George Floyd two years ago have prompted more companies to rethink hiring. Experts say an aging workforce, changing demographics, immigration restrictions, diversity, and equity and inclusion programs are forcing change.

“Things come together we’ve never really seen before,” said Joseph Fuller, a professor at Harvard Business School and co-author of the Burning Glass Report, published in February.

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, said Burning Glass’s research highlights a “real and sustainable” trend. “Employers do not have the luxury of excluding talent. They should be more thorough when necessary.”

While citing “a college degree” in a job ad isn’t actual employment, workforce experts say it’s an important indication of a company’s hiring behavior.

“For diversity goals, the biggest avenue you can pull is to cancel the four-year degree candidate,” said Elise Rosenblum, managing director of Grads of Life, which advises companies on inclusive hiring practices.

There are subpoenas to the verdict in the Burnt Glass Search. For example, companies can list the qualifications required for a job as “Bachelor’s degree or equivalent work experience.” However, the researchers concluded that such wording indicates a bias toward obtaining a college degree.

A detailed analysis of companies in the same industry has found significant differences in degree requirements for entry-level jobs that tend to serve as stepping stones for higher-paying roles and career paths for upward mobility. Many technical professions, such as computer support specialist, software developer and software quality assurance engineer.

Successful training programs for the underprivileged, such as Year Up and Per Scholas, have focused on technical jobs because the demand is strong and skills can be demonstrated through coding exams or industry-recognised certifications.

Dropping a college degree qualification for jobs requires work. The skills needed for a job need to be explained more clearly, and hiring managers need to be trained. Workforce experts note that corporate habits run deep. Corporations reflexively seek not only college graduates but from a few preferred schools.

“This is still a head-to-head fight at the company level,” said Matt Siegelman, president of the Burnt Glass Institute and co-author of the report.

In company data, some employers who advocated skill-based hiring and generously supported upward mobility programs still had generally high levels of four-year degree requirements in employment.

Microsoft, for example, is a major financial backer of Markle’s Skillful Program and a member of the Rework America Business Network, a group of companies that has pledged to move toward skill-based hiring. Microsoft and its subsidiary LinkedIn have offered free online courses to millions during the pandemic.

But in the Burning Glass analysis, Microsoft required degrees in 54 percent of computer support jobs, compared to the national average of 24 percent. For software quality assurance jobs, 87 percent require an associate’s degree versus a national average of 54 percent. Microsoft required a college degree in 70 percent of all vacancies in 2021, according to Burning Glass.

Lauren Gardner, Microsoft’s vice president of global talent acquisition, declined to comment on the Burning Glass analysis, other than to say that many of the company’s listings specify a college degree or equivalent experience.

“We are moving on what skills candidates have rather than how they are acquired,” said Ms. Gardner. “We are fully committed to expanding our recruitment field. But it is a journey.”

Google offers popular skills courses for free to nonprofits and community colleges, and in February announced $100 million in funding to expand training and job search programs focused on low-income workers, usually without a college degree for four years. Google, according to Burning Glass, has made real progress in reducing undergraduate degree requirements, from 89 percent of jobs in 2017 to 72 percent in 2021 — although that level remains high.

Google job postings usually list “bachelor’s degree” first as a qualification, sometimes followed by other requirements, for example, in engineering or finance, and always end with “or equivalent work experience”.

“Our focus is on proven skills, and that can come through certifications or it can come through relevant experience,” said Brendan Castle, Google’s vice president of recruitment, in a statement.

In the tech industry, workforce experts point to Accenture and IBM as two companies whose efforts to hire people without a four-year degree began as corporate responsibility projects that eventually became more popular hiring lines.

They say this experience has influenced how companies describe business requirements. Burning Glass analysis found that both IBM and Accenture require college degrees in less than half of their open positions.

Danica Lohia came to America from Serbia in 2011 with $400 and hopes for a brighter future. I started working as a waitress in a country club, but Technology seems to be where the good jobs are. So I got an associate’s degree in computer information systems from a community college in Chicago.

Ms. Lohja learned of a one-year apprenticeship program offered by Accenture. The company hired her in 2017 and upgraded her three times. She is now an associate director at the Accenture unit that negotiates contracts and manages hardware and software suppliers for the big technology services company.

Ms. Lohja refused to say how much you earn. According to the Indeed job search site, associate managers at Accenture earn more than $110,000 annually. Ms. Lohja, 35, is married to a software engineer at an insurance company. They own a house in Chicago, send their two young sons to a private school and head to Aruba on vacation in April.

“I think we’re living the American dream,” she said.

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