In May 2022, we’re going to have 500,000 fewer undergraduate students completing their first year of college than the numbers we have historically seen.
Yet, since the early 2000s, the slow creep of degree inflation meant that employers had started adding degree requirements to jobs that hadn’t previously needed degrees, despite the nature of jobs staying the same.
Manjari Raman, the director of Harvard Business School’s project on Managing the Future of Work, pinpoints automation as the culprit that catalyzed this shift. As automation transformed every industry, social abilities, data analysis, and problem-solving skills became the distinguishing factor for job success, and college degrees became a convenient proxy for these soft skills.
The Myth of Meritocracy in Schooling
Kwame Anthony Appiah, NYU professor of Philosophy and Law, noted that while education started out as a “mechanism of mobility,” it has quickly become a “fortress of privilege.” An emphasis on college degrees has led employers to prefer candidates who hail from institutions with an aura of prestige. While hard work and true merit no doubt play a role in admissions to elite schools, privilege is the real elephant in the room - an often hushed up contributing factor that is uncomfortable to talk about.
Privilege can take many forms, but the two most common are race and income. Even in Harvard’s most recently admitted class, the admissions rate of legacy applicants (mostly wealthy and white, based on historical attendance at elite institutions) was 5x that of non-legacy students. Moreover, while high-income Americans (from families earning more than a quarter million dollars) are only 5% of the total population, they were over-represented at Harvard, constituting 15% of the incoming class. Bright students from marginalized communities may never make it to these marquee institutes because they lack the information, amenities, and connections that would give them the opportunity to distinguish themselves in the college application process.
Schooling-Related Unconscious Biases in Hiring Practices
Recruitment into the workforce is ridden with unconscious biases and assumptions we make about the importance of higher education and the value of college degrees, especially those conferred by highly selective institutions.
Affinity and confirmation bias are two of the major types of unconscious biases recruiters harbor with regard to formal schooling.
Have you ever conducted an interview where you had already made assumptions about the candidate based on his or her resume and found your judgment to hold up after the interview? That is an example of confirmation bias in action - developing an initial perception about the candidate and seeking information during the interview that confirms that belief.
Educational institutions have become signals of quality when it comes to hiring. Ivy League graduates earn 39% more than their peers from second-tier schools. This real-life outcome is a product of the assumption that Ivy League graduates are more intelligent, ambitious, and hard-working than alumni of less prestigious schools. When it comes to the economics of the job market, these graduates, therefore, command a higher premium. Employers who encounter these top-tier schools on a candidate’s resume unconsciously buy into these beliefs and may exhibit confirmation bias in the interview process, seeking information that confirms their beliefs about this candidate’s suitability and overlooking red flags, if any.
When employers demonstrate a preference or bias towards candidates with backgrounds similar to theirs, affinity or personal similarity bias comes into play. Age, lifestyle, socioeconomic status, being alumni of the same school, and even candidates’ names are all points of comparison. Often, employers fall prey to affinity bias under the guise of finding a ‘culture fit.’
These evaluation factors that provide employers with a degree of comfort towards the candidate are seldom related to the job. Schooling plays an important role here, too; employers often shortlist resumes of candidates who went to the same college as they did.
Hiring processes are plagued with these unconscious biases and unfairly filter out candidates based on the kind of educational institution they attended or whether they ever completed formal schooling, even if they seem to have the relevant skills to perform well at that job.
Skills – the Bedrock of Jobs of the Future
The trend of degree-based hiring is problematic for companies and talent alike. Higher education is known to be a poor indicator of productivity or performance and does not guarantee job success. College-educated talent also tends to be more homogenous – Black and Hispanic students’ share of Bachelors degrees is just 11% and 14%, respectively. Diversity in the workplace confers innumerable benefits – enhanced creativity, sharper decision-making and problem-solving, and improved bottom line. Being around people different from us actually makes us smarter, and a recruitment process that solely focuses on degrees and shortlists similar people does a disservice to your company.
It was only after the 2008-09 Great Recession that companies began architecting a shift in recruitment processes and dropping unnecessary degree requirements. Between 2017 and 2019, employers had forgone degree requirements for a significant percentage of both middle-skill and high-skill jobs. The Covid-19 pandemic has further accelerated this process. These tectonic shifts in hiring are occurring on the backs of upskilling initiatives that have slowly transformed the hiring landscape over the past few years.
IBM’s SkillsBuild initiative partners with 30 global organizations to upskill marginalized populations and the Open Skills Network, spearheaded by a multipartite coalition of employers, educators, policy makers, and nonprofits, among other collaborators, aims to create a skills-driven labor market. Walmart, Western Governors University, and 40 other organizations, have collaborated to create open skills libraries and catalog data around skills. Tech behemoths like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Salesforce have also launched programs to upskill their own employees.
Former McKinsey partner, Byron Auguste, founded Opportunity@Work to advocate for an idea he strongly believed in – that degrees are a poor proxy for skills. His STARs – people Skilled Through Alternative Routes – are a potent workforce of over 70 million adults without formal degrees in the US who gained their skills through the myriad bootcamps, certificate programs, and workforce training options available. These STARs would be assets to any organization willing to use alternative means to assess their talent.
Accelerating Skill-Based Hiring
Traditional interviews are unstructured and ask general, open-ended questions. Since such conversational interviews are governed by the candidate’s ability to speak well, they only serve to form an overall impression of the candidate and are subject to the halo or horn cognitive bias that often develops through first impressions.
Skill or competency based interviews, on the other hand, directly test for both hard and soft skills that the candidate will need in order to perform well in the job. While these types of interviews may also be structured around descriptive answers, the responses sought will be more specific, for instance, a recounting of an incident where data analysis informed their decision-making. Another way to assess skills in technical applicants is by asking them to showcase past coding projects. By detailing job-related certifications and completed coursework, candidates can also demonstrate their interest in and willingness to continue honing their skills.
At FloCareer, we automate skill-based assessments in several of our products. Our On Demand Interviews offer a gamified experience to candidates while simultaneously posing coding challenges and scenario based questions to test for skills in real-time. Our JD to CV match product compares the real skills on an applicant’s resume with those outlines in the job description and employs machine learning for pre-screening candidates with the skills required for the job. Our automated recruiting solutions take the guesswork out of hiring and let you filter candidates efficiently, not by degrees but by actual skills that are proven to be a better predictor of job-related success.
In addition to this, we also have an army of 3,500+ FloExperts who are ready to interview your applicants utilizing a structured interview guide. These methods combined are a sure-shot way to find the best candidates for your opening.