Employers still aren’t hiring people without college degrees

After years of perpetuating degree inflation, a sizable number of companies have stopped mandating college degrees for jobs that don’t require them. Even leading employers, including Walmart, IBM, Google, and Accenture, have started to embrace what researchers call skills-based hiring, in an effort to diversify their applicant pools and address shortages of skilled workers—a trend that was also accelerated by the pandemic.

Despite this progress, a new report from the Burning Glass Institute and Harvard Business School indicates that companies haven’t moved the needle enough on hiring people who lack a college degree, which accounts for two-thirds of Americans over the age of 25. The researchers found that in an analysis of 11,300 jobs for which companies removed degree requirements, there was only an average of a 3.5-percentage-point increase in the number of workers without a degree hired for those roles. Those workers accounted for just 97,000 out of a total of 77 million annual hires in 2023, or one in 700 hires.

Only about 37% of the companies surveyed were responsible for the bulk of that shift. That group, which the report identifies as “skills-based hiring leaders,” was largely comprised of smaller employers but also included major companies, including Koch Industries, Walmart, Apple, General Motors, Target, Cigna, Tyson Foods, ExxonMobil, and Yelp, along with a handful of government employers. Meanwhile, companies like Amazon, Bank of America, and Lockheed Martin had some of the lowest rates of hiring workers without degrees; while others—among them Nike, Uber, and Delta Airlines—were dubbed “backsliders” for having made initial progress they didn’t sustain.

The share of annual job postings without degree requirements increased by four times between 2014 and 2023, a sign that companies are reassessing their hiring practices. But the report’s findings posit that the greater hurdle might be addressing the bias that may hold hiring managers back from actually extending offers to those workers.

A recent study from ZipRecruiter echoed this idea: While 35% of big companies and 47% of small and midsize ones scrapped degree requirements for certain roles, more than half of respondents said hiring managers still felt strongly about the value imparted by a college degree. (Managers with a degree also tend to assume that the proportion of workers who went to college is higher than it actually is.)

There are other reasons for the lag in hiring beyond companies now finally addressing long-standing beliefs about degrees. As the Wall Street Journal notes, evaluating candidates on the basis of skills requires more time and energy, and companies need to be very intentional about how they approach hiring, needing to train managers to seriously consider those candidates. What’s more, the automated hiring tools that many companies are using to vet applicants can be biased against those without degrees as well as résumés with employment gaps—an issue that impacts people with disabilities and other marginalized workers.

At the same time, there are signs that when workers without degrees do get a foot in the door, they are able to rise through the ranks and get promoted, according to previous research by the Burning Glass Institute and Harvard Business School. While such industries as retail, banking, and telecom have especially high rates of promoting employees without degrees, plenty of other jobs offer similar opportunities for career advancement—assuming they’ve hired those workers in the first place.

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