One of my closest and oldest friends did not get a college degree.
After high school, she moved to San Francisco and worked two jobs (barista and hostess). Over the years since then, she’s worn countless hats – professional photographer, bakery manager, construction project manager. She’s flipped houses, built tents, run her own Airbnb, and flown planes. She moved to Montana about ten years ago and started a small boutique, which she ran successfully for several years until she sold the business.
This eclectic professional background is a reflection of her agility, talent, and tenacity. And really, this is the least of her qualifications – she’s creative, charismatic, hard-working, eager to learn, adventurous, and whip-smart. Most of the hard skills she’s developed and put to use in the workforce are self-taught; the result of a truly determined spirit. She also possesses many of the characteristics we look for in our most treasured colleagues: consideration of others, tact, the ability to own and learn from mistakes, good communication skills, and authentic kindness.
My friend has also submitted countless job applications over the last few years, and received just as many rejections (until very recently, when she took a position at a local nonprofit, where she is thriving). Very often, this is stated to be explicitly because she lacks formal higher education, or the precise professional background the company is seeking. Many of these jobs would have been perfect for her skills and experience, but the common thread is that they won’t even give her a chance to interview.
My friend is far from alone. For so many talented job seekers, getting employers to consider their candidacy when their backgrounds don’t fit the typical mold seems virtually impossible. This is especially true for parents (most often moms) who have taken a caretaking career pause. Pivoters, reskillers, re-enterers, those with certifications and experience but no college degree – at Werklabs/The Mom Project, we hear these stories all the time from our talent community, and many of our own employees have had similar experiences. So many qualified, competent, enthusiastic applicants are too often excluded from consideration because of the ways traditional hiring methods filter candidates out. This is a shame for job seekers and employers alike (especially because there is good reason to believe that these more traditional metrics are imperfect predictors of candidates’ performance).
Fortunately, recent trends suggest things might be changing.
Skills-based hiring is picking up steam
Increasingly, employers are prioritizing skills over more traditional metrics like degrees and industry experience in their hiring practices. In 2020, 15% of job postings on LinkedIn did not require a college degree – in 2023, this figure has increased to 24%. HR teams are increasingly using skills as their number one hiring criterion, and 76% of employers now use some form of skills-based hiring in their recruitment practices.
The states of Maryland, Utah, and Pennsylvania recently dropped bachelor’s degree requirements for most government jobs. In January, the Chance to Compete Act, which implements merit-based reforms to civil service hiring practices by replacing degree-based hiring with skills-based hiring, passed the U.S. House of Representatives with tremendous bipartisan support, and seems to have momentum in the Senate.
“Non-linear” hires support the bottom line
At Werklabs/The Mom Project, we hear all the time from our clients about the positive experiences they have with TMP talent – so many of whom are returning to the workforce or pivoting careers. Employers who institute returnship programs (a returnship is essentially a return-to-work program, like a paid internship but for individuals who have taken time off from the paid workforce) reap the benefits of employees who are not only eager to learn, but also deeply loyal to the companies that helped bring them back into the paid workforce. Clients who hire TMP talent (whose career paths are often non-linear) report 40% greater retention and 4.2x higher productivity; a strong majority also say that TMP talent have made positive contributions to their organizational culture.
Skills-based hiring has been also shown to diversify the talent pool. While increasing diversity is valuable in its own right, a wide body of research has also shown that diverse teams perform better, bring greater innovation to their organizations, and increase revenue.
Plus, the next generation of workers is thinking differently about employment, and organizations would do well to get ahead of these trends before Gen Z comprises the majority of their talent pool. College enrollment is on the decline, and a majority of Gen Z students now say companies should hire candidates who have pursued non-degree pathways.
Driven both by the experiences of our talent community and by these recent trends, Werklabs is embarking on research aimed at helping employers rethink hiring, in the hopes that they don’t miss out on these valuable segments of the workforce, and that talented candidates like my friend aren’t so easily overlooked. This process considers the employment experiences of RISE participants post-graduation, examines how hiring managers are incorporating new hiring practices, and delves into how – and why – to implement returnship programs.
No, we haven’t yet solved for all the ways to get employers to focus on those incredible intangibles – willingness to learn, kindness, self-awareness, dependability. But we do think expanding and updating the way organizations filter talent will help them ensure their candidate pool includes more of these types of people, ultimately helping them recruit employees who work harder, stay longer, and bring more to the table.