Struggling to find great talent?

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Consider candidates without a degree.

March 7, 2019

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At the end of 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor reported unemployment rates are holding firm at 3.7 percent. This is a nearly 50-year low. If you’re an employer, you don’t have to be told what this means: it’s really tough to find great talent right now. Expand your pool of candidates by considering those who don’t have a college degree.

One of the biggest misconceptions among employers is that people must hold a college degree to be a viable candidate. for certain positions. It’s just not true.

Not only are there plenty of smart young people out there who are choosing not to follow the traditional path, those who do follow it often don’t have the skills employers need. It makes no sense to cling to old hiring practices when we live and work in a whole new world.

Let’s change the conversation around how we educate America’s workforce. Not only are colleges failing to deliver candidates with the skills businesses need, many talented young people are bypassing college altogether. They see the astronomical price of a four-year degree and are unwilling to cripple themselves financially to attain one. Plus, they believe (and rightly so) that they can find better educational options and hone their skill set elsewhere.

So why do employers still believe traditional education is needed? Because the presence of a degree is a signal—a psychological shortcut that enables us to make good decisions without doing the exhaustive research needed to investigate every option. But signals can lose their meaning, and that’s what has been happening for some time now.

The “I have a degree, therefore I am smart, hardworking, and well-to-do” signal made sense back when only five percent of males born in 1900 had a college degree. Today, nearly 40 percent of working-age Americans hold degrees. Many degrees are useless to employers, curricula are disconnected from the needs of today’s marketplace, and college typically fails to develop needed skills like critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication.

If you insist that the person you hire have a degree, you might well be missing out on the perfect candidate.

Shift your mindset to override the “degree” signal. Take a long, hard look at what really leads to success and performance, recognizing that university degrees aren’t the key, and revising your job postings to reflect the stuff that actually matters. You won’t be the first; in 2015 Ernst & Young professional services in the United Kingdom removed degree classification from its hiring criteria, citing a lack of evidence that university success correlated with job performance. Similarly, Laszlo Bock, former head of people operations at Google, went on record saying that grades in degree programs are “worthless as a criteria for hiring,” and currently as much as 14 percent of employees on some Google teams never attended college.

Drop the application tracking system, or at least switch off the filtering related to education. While you’re tweaking your hiring process, lean more into the assessments and simulations that actually give you a sense of what candidates can bring to the table. When Ernst & Young did this, they saw a 10 percent increase in the diversity of new hires.

Look at candidates who have pursued more progressive, cutting-edge options. Many students are now choosing hybrid programs like the one offered by Minerva Schools at KGI, or a “last mile” training offered by MissionU, or a program like Praxis, whose slogan is “The degree is dead. You need experience.”

Consider ditching the resume requirement. People often embellish the truth (or outright lie) on resumes. Instead, ask candidates to fill out an online application that has behavior questions and asks people to do tasks they’ll need to be able to do on the job. This provides a much better picture of whether they’ll be able to perform. Plus, some candidates might have exactly the qualities you want but don’t come across well on a resume.

Ask candidates to perform a task that simulates the job. These could be built into your online application. For example, if you’re hiring a writer you would ask them to complete a short writing task. This is a good way to weed out those candidates that don’t have the technical proficiency to do the job, which will make narrowing down the list much easier.

For more complicated jobs consider paying a candidate to take on a project. Or hire someone on a contract basis to make sure they have the right stuff before you extend a more permanent offer.

During the interview, focus mostly on chemistry and culture fit. By the time a candidate gets to this phase, they will have demonstrated that they have what it takes to do the job. What the interview can really tell you is how well you’ll get along with the person.

Cultivate the things that matter by developing a culture of learning and growth. While it’s important to find the right candidates, it’s even more important to make sure you continue to develop people after you hire them. There are many great books on this subject. Also, consider engaging training providers, such as Mind Gym, The Center for Work Ethic Development, and my own company, Mirasee.


Danny Iny is the author of Leveraged Learning: How the Disruption of Education Helps Lifelong Learners and Experts with Something to Teach. He is a lifelong entrepreneur, best-selling author, and CEO of the online business education company Mirasee. Photo courtesy of Mirasee