As a middle school student in New York, Shekinah Griffith saw a television news report of President Barack Obama visiting an innovative school in Brooklyn. Its program included high school, an associate degree in a technical subject, an internship and the promise of a good job.
“I thought, ‘This is somewhere I need to be,’” Griffith recalled. “There are not many opportunities like that for people like me.”
She applied, was accepted and thrived in the courses. After school, an internship and an 18-month apprenticeship, she became a full-time employee at IBM at the end of 2020. Today Griffith is a cybersecurity technical specialist and earns more than $100,000 a year.
In the last few years, major U.S. companies in every industry have pledged to change their hiring habits by opening the door to higher-wage jobs with career paths to people without four-year college degrees, like Griffith. More than 100 companies have made commitments, including the Business Roundtable’s Multiple Pathways program and OneTen, which is focused on hiring and promoting Black workers without college degrees to good jobs.
How has corporate America done so far? There has been a gradual shift overall, according to a recent report and additional data supplied by the Burning Glass Institute. But the research group’s company-by-company analysis underlines both the potential and the challenge of changing entrenched hiring practices.
4-year degree requirement declining
The Burning Glass Institute is an independent nonprofit research center, using data from Emsi Burning Glass, a labor market analytics firm. The researchers analyzed millions of online job listings, looking for four-year college degree requirements and trends. In 2017, 51% required the degree. By 2021, that share had declined to 44%.
Workforce experts see removing the four-year college degree filter for some jobs as key to increasing diversity and reducing inequality. Workers, they say, should be selected and promoted because of their skills and experience rather than degrees or educational pedigree. And companies that do change their hiring practices, they add, benefit by tapping previously overlooked pools of talent in a tight labor market, as well as diversifying their workforces.
Nearly two-thirds of American workers do not have a four-year college degree. Screening by college degree hits minorities particularly hard, eliminating 76% of Black adults and 83% of Latino adults.
Companies that have trimmed back degree requirements typically began doing so before the pandemic, the Burning Glass analysis found. Nonprofit groups like Opportunity@Work, founded in 2015, and the Markle Foundation’s Skillful program, begun in 2016, had been prodding companies to adopt skills-based hiring.
Confluence of factors forcing change
But the pandemic labor crunch and calls on corporate America to address racial discrimination after the murder of George Floyd two years ago prompted more companies to rethink hiring. An aging workforce; changing demographics; immigration curbs; and diversity, equity and inclusion programs are forcing change, experts say.
“Things are coming together that we really haven’t seen before,” said Joseph Fuller, a professor at the Harvard Business School and a co-author of the Burning Glass report, which was published in February.
The Burning Glass research underlines a trend that is “real and sustained,” said Johnny C. Taylor Jr., CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management. “Employers don’t have the luxury of excluding talent. They have to be more inclusive of necessity.”
While citing “college degree” in a job posting is not actual hiring, workforce experts say it is an important signal of corporate hiring behavior.
“For diversity goals, the biggest lever you can pull is eliminating the four-year degree filter,” said Elyse Rosenblum, managing director of Grads of Life, which advises companies on inclusive hiring practices.
There are judgment calls in the Burning Glass research. For example, companies can list the required qualification for a job as “bachelor’s degree or equivalent practical experience.” Still, such wording suggests a bias toward a college degree, the researchers concluded.
Detailed analysis of companies in the same industry found sizable differences in the degree requirements for entry-level jobs that tend to be steppingstones to higher-paying roles and career paths of upward mobility. Several are technical occupations, such as computer support specialist, software developer and software quality assurance engineer.
Successful training programs for the disadvantaged, like Year Up and Per Scholas, have focused on tech jobs because demand is strong and the skills can be demonstrated through coding tests or industry-recognized certificates.
Reconsideration of job skills
Dropping the college degree qualification for jobs requires work. The skills needed for a job have to be explained more clearly, and hiring managers have to be trained. Institutional habits, workforce experts note, run deep. Companies reflexively seek out not only college graduates but ones from a handful of favorite schools.
“This is still hand-to-hand combat at the company level,” said Matt Sigelman, president of the Burning Glass Institute and a co-author of the report.
In the company data, some employers that have championed skills-based hiring and generously supported upward-mobility programs still have generally high levels of four-year degree requirements in their hiring.
Microsoft, for example, is a major financial supporter of Markle’s Skillful program and a member of the Rework America Business Network, a group of companies that has pledged to move toward skills-based hiring. Microsoft and its LinkedIn subsidiary offered free online courses during the pandemic to millions.
But in the Burning Glass analysis, Microsoft required a degree for 54% of its computer support job postings, compared with a national average at 24%. For its software quality assurance jobs, 87% required a college degree versus a national average at 54%. Microsoft required a college degree in 70% of its total job postings in 2021, according to Burning Glass. Lauren Gardner, vice president of global talent acquisition for Microsoft, declined to comment on the Burning Glass analysis, other than to say many of the company’s listings specify a college degree or equivalent experience.
“We’re shifting to skills candidates possess as opposed to how they acquired them,” Gardner said. “We’re absolutely committed to broadening our hiring aperture. But it’s a journey.”
Google offers its popular skills courses free to nonprofits and community colleges and in February announced a $100 million fund to expand training and job-finding programs that focus on low-income workers, typically without a four-year college degree. Google, according to Burning Glass, has made real progress in reducing college degree requirements, from 89% of jobs in 2017 to 72% in 2021 — though that level is still high.
‘Demonstrated skills’ at Google
Google’s job postings typically list ‘bachelor’s degree” first as a qualification, sometimes followed by other requirements in, say, engineering or finance, and nearly always end with the phrase “or equivalent practical experience.”
In a statement, Brendan Castle, vice president of recruiting for Google, said, “Our focus is on demonstrated skills, and this can come through degrees or it can come through relevant experience.”
In the tech industry, workforce experts point to Accenture and IBM as companies whose efforts to recruit people without a four-year degree began as corporate responsibility projects that eventually became more mainstream hiring pipelines.
That experience, they say, has influenced how the companies describe job requirements. The Burning Glass analysis found that both IBM and Accenture require college degrees in fewer than half their job postings.
Danica Lohja came to America from Serbia in 2011 with $400 and hopes for a brighter future. She started out working as a waitress at a country club, but technology seemed to be where the good jobs were. So she earned an associate degree in computer information systems at a community college in Chicago.
Lohja learned of a yearlong apprenticeship program offered by Accenture. The company hired her in 2017 and has promoted her three times. She is now an associate manager in the Accenture unit that negotiates contracts and manages the big technology services company’s hardware and software suppliers.
Lohja declined to say how much she makes. According to the job search site Indeed, associate managers at Accenture earn more than $110,000 a year. Lohja is married to a software engineer at an insurance company. They own a home in Chicago, send their two young sons to private school and are headed to Aruba on vacation in April.
“I think we’re living the American dream,” she said.