Don't Limit Talent Pool by Requiring College Degrees for Middle-Skills Jobs

Sara Korolevich

Many employers are having a hard time filling jobs. According to new research, it may be because they’re unnecessarily requiring college degrees for positions that don’t need them. It’s time for employers to recognize the value of applicants who lack a four-year degree—which is nearly two-thirds of the U.S. workforce.

More than 12 million Americans are either unemployed or underemployed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, yet 3 in 5 employers report difficulty in filling middle-skills jobs—positions that require more education than a high-school diploma, but less than a four-year college degree.

Makes Hiring, and Keeping, Employees More Difficult

The rising demand for a four-year degree for jobs that previously didn’t require one shuts the door to new opportunities for millions of middle-skilled Americans. New research by Harvard Business School, Accenture, and Grads of Life called Dismissed by Degrees says “degree inflation” harms businesses, too.

In addition to limiting the number of applicants in the talent pool, positions that require degrees take longer to fill. For example, Construction Supervisor positions that require a bachelor’s degree take an average of 61 days to fill, compared to 28 days for positions that don’t require one, according to a report on degree inflation by Burning Glass Technologies.

Further, applicants with a four-year degree cost more. In Dismissed by Degrees, employers admit that they pay significantly more, up to 30% higher, when they hire workers with college degrees compared with middle-skills workers without degrees doing the same job.

Finally, once college graduates have been hired, the report finds that they’re less likely to stay long, are less engaged—and more likely to leave for a competitor, leading to higher turnover rates and the need to once again fill a vacant position.

“Degree inflation is corrosive to U.S. competitiveness in two ways. It slams the door of opportunity in the face of Americans with the experience to do a job or the aptitude to grow into it. It simultaneously makes it harder for American companies to find and retain affordable talent,” said Joseph B. Fuller, Harvard Business School Professor of Management Practice.

Why Is This Happening?

Nearly a decade ago, during a time of high unemployment in the U.S., employers began to list four-year degrees as a requirement for middle-skills positions as a way to evaluate candidates’ “range and depth of skills.” Now, at a time when unemployment for recent college grads is low, hovering at 2.3%, employers continue to use degrees as a requirement for these positions even though the position was traditionally filled by workers without a degree. As an example, the research points to a job posting in 2015 for production supervisors: 67% of job postings for this position asked for a college degree, while only 16% of employed production supervisors had one.

Be Open to Training and Work Experience as Alternatives

By omitting the four-year degree requirement, employers can significantly increase the pool of qualified applicants, which includes nearly six million young adults who might have the relevant skills but not a college degree. It also opens the door to hiring “older applicants who lack a college degree but bring years of relevant experience to the job.”

To expand the talent pool and reverse “degree inflation,” the report recommends business leaders should:

  • Identify which middle-skills occupations are prone to degree inflation within their organizations and industries.
  • Explore alternative proxies to a college degree. Identify the specific “hard” and “soft” skills required for critical middle-skills jobs, and develop in-house or external training programs, apprenticeships, and internships to impart those skills.
  • Evaluate the hidden costs of hiring degreed workers versus non-degreed workers.
  • Invest in strategies that help the company attract and retain workers with the right competencies rather than depending on credentials alone.

In today’s modern, fast-paced workplaces where technological skills are in high demand, work experience and hands-on training can give employees the skills and abilities they need to be successful at their jobs. And employers benefit from an engaged, eager workforce that is open to new opportunities.


Disclaimer: The resources provided here are for educational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. We advise you to consult your own counsel if you have legal questions related to your specific practices and compliance with applicable laws.

Sara Korolevich

Sara Korolevich


Sara Korolevich is editor of the blog and responsible for communicating GoodHire's product news, feature enhancements, and background check compliance updates. Sara’s public relations and communications experience stems from 20+ years working on public education campaigns, public policy, and most recently B2B marketing communications.

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