In June, Emily Dickens met a woman named Roxie at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2022 in New Orleans.
Dickens, chief of staff at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), said Roxie had been working in HR for about 25 years. Roxie lacked a college degree, which many companies require for mid-tier and high-level positions. But she worked hard, educated herself in HR practices, became SHRM-certified and proved her value to her company.
Roxie worked her way up the ranks and eventually was promoted to chief people officer of her organization of 200 people—despite her lack of higher education.
“You felt like Roxie was your friend and you were so excited for her,” Dickens said. “No college degree. [She’s] someone who gained the skills and trust of her organization. You know that someone like Roxie is going to make sure that others like her who don’t necessarily have that degree get that opportunity.”
On June 28, Dickens shared Roxie’s story during a roundtable discussion, “Skills Based Hiring: Removing Barriers and Paving Pathways to an Inclusive Workforce.” Hosted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the session allowed multiple organizations to explore how employers have integrated skills-based hiring into their employment practices.
The discussion was the third installment of the EEOC’s Hiring Initiative to Reimagine Equity (HIRE) program, a joint initiative with the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) that promotes hiring and recruiting practices that enhance equal employment opportunities.
What Is Skills-Based Hiring?
Skills-based hiring is an approach that concentrates on a candidate’s practical skills and performance rather than formal qualifications.
Byron Auguste, CEO and co-founder of nonprofit Opportunity@Work, said that more than 70 million people in the U.S. lack a college degree yet are skilled through alternative routes, also known as having “alternative credentials.”
“They might very well have military experience or workforce experience training or community college [experience],” Auguste said. “Tens of millions have some college. … But they are skilled above all through the work they do.”
As many as 30 million U.S. workers without college degrees have the skills necessary to earn 70 percent more than they currently do, according to a 2020 report by Opportunity@Work and McKinsey and Co. The report states that employer education requirements often hold these workers back.
But many companies, including the federal government, are moving away from degree requirements to a skills-based hiring approach. In 2017, 51 percent of online job listings required a degree. By 2021, that share of those same job occupations had declined to 44 percent, according to a 2022 report by research firm Emsi Burning Glass.
“In many cases, eliminating an educational requirement for many positions can enable employers to identify skilled workers from a diverse range of backgrounds,” said Jenny Yang, director of the OFCCP. “A number of major tech companies have been actively rethinking degree requirements, with some removing such requirements for over half of their IT job postings.”
Maurice Jones is the CEO of OneTen, a coalition of organizations that aim to eliminate college degree requirements to get hired. The organization has worked since March 2021with 71 companies that have hired and promoted 40,000 Black employees who don’t yet have four-year degrees.
After seeing the success of skills-based workers, a global health care company with OneTen decided to strip their bachelor’s degree requirement from all job openings.
“They went out and sought an advisory company, a consultant to help them rebuild all of their positions from a skills-first perspective,” Jones explained. “That took the leadership from the CEO to start with. And it took the senior C-suite folks and hiring managers to say, ‘You know what? We should have done this years ago. Now that we’ve seen this be successful, let’s be bold and ambitious about it.’ “
Consider an Apprenticeship Program
Laura Maristany, vice president of external affairs for tech company Bitwise Industries, championed apprenticeship programs to support workers without degrees. Her company’s apprenticeships last between 12 to 18 months, during which apprentices learn the tricks of their trade.
During this time, they earn between $16 and $22 an hour and receive 401(k) benefits as well as health care benefits.
“The majority of our folks are over 24 years old,” Maristany said. “Many are coming to us without previous higher education experience.”
After completing the program, many participants gain permanent employment. The program helps them gain experience, skills and a higher salary. In some cases, these participants eventually decide to enroll in college and further their education.
“That’s an important point,” Maristany said. “We are not pitting one system against another. Higher education has a purpose. But we need to be more purposeful about the opportunities that we create.”
Skills-Based Hiring Improves Diversity
Dickens referred to SHRM research finding that most executives and supervisors consider credentialed employees—or employees with alternative credentials as opposed to traditional education—to be better performers than many of those with bachelor’s degrees. She said this method of hiring enables companies to employ a more diverse group of workers.
“Not just racial and ethnic [diversity], but social, economic, regional, the formerly incarcerated, the differently abled and those re-entering the workforce after an absence,” Dickens explained. “At SHRM, we call that untapped talent.”
Inclusivity begins with the CEO, she said. There must be alignment between the CEO, HR professionals and people managers to incorporate these more inclusive practices in recruiting skilled workers who lack a college degree.
As Dickens said, “We have to acknowledge that we can provide on-the-job training for what we need.”