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February 7, 2024

3 Reasons Degree-Free Jobs Are On The Rise—And How To Land One

This year, 45% of companies are planning to drop degree requirements for some roles, according to a study of 800 companies by released in November. This follows the drift of the previous year, during which 55% of employers adjusted some of their job descriptions to eliminate bachelor’s degree requirements. Instead of looking at whether or not […]

This year, 45% of companies are planning to drop degree requirements for some roles, according to a study of 800 companies by released in November. This follows the drift of the previous year, during which 55% of employers adjusted some of their job descriptions to eliminate bachelor’s degree requirements.

Instead of looking at whether or not you have a degree, these companies will prioritize demonstrable skills in their hiring decisions. In fact, the study found that four out of five employers say they value experience over education when reviewing candidates.

This is the epitome of skills-first hiring, and it’s going to have its day. Fed up with the labor shortage, companies are getting creative in expanding their talent pools and diversifying their workforce.

But it’s been a long time coming. What is finally tipping the scales in favor of skills over degrees? There are three big factors.

1. Degrees dissociated from workplace readiness

In survey after survey, employers indicate their disappointment with the workplace readiness of recent college graduates. No matter how great you did in school, there’s a steep learning curve once you launch your career in the full-time workforce.

Many times, employers complain that their younger hires lack the soft skills (or what I call professional skills) that are essential to function at work. Even if you have all the technical skills for the role, you won’t thrive if you lack professional skills like initiative, communication, ownership, integrity, time management, stress management, flexibility, networking and more.

Companies are wising up to the fact that merely having completed a college degree does not prove that a person is actually ready to thrive in the workplace. They’re also accepting the reality that if they want workers skilled in both the technical and interpersonal aspects of the job, they’re going to have to take a more active hand in developing them. It logically follows that in a company where significant learning & development opportunities are part of the culture, your degree status becomes less relevant.

Degree-free jobs are on the rise because degrees cannot replace or even fully simulate the effectiveness of on-the-job learning. To land a great job without a degree, work on the professional skills that make you ready to hit the ground running.

2. Degrees too expensive to afford

According to the Wall Street Journal, the real cost of college has skyrocketed 180% between 1980 and 2020. It now costs an average of $36,000 annually to attend a public college. Most people need almost five years to complete their degree program. Multiply the annual cost of college by five, add the opportunity cost of lost work while in school, plus the cost of student loan servicing, and the real cost of college can easily top $300,000. The article notes that this is more than the median net worth of most families.

No wonder that every year sees a drop of 3 million fewer students on college campuses. Today, two-thirds of high school students believe they’ll be just fine without college—and who’s to say they’re wrong?

College is quickly becoming something beyond the touch of most people—or at least, those who don’t want to start their career saddled with an almost unpayable debt. This translates to fewer college graduates in the talent pool—a dynamic that isn’t sustainable for companies to power their business.

The good news for workers is that there are so many alternative ways to get skilled today. Research the careers that sound appealing to you and what it takes to prepare for them. Chances are, you may not need to devote four or five years of your life (and $300,000) to learning the skills to perform the job.

3. College isn’t right for everyone

If you think about it, it’s fairly prejudicial to assume that the largely lecture format of a typical college course is the best way to learn. As we discover more about different learning styles, it’s becoming apparent that many people learn better through hands-on experience rather than copious note-taking. This isn’t a defect; it’s just a difference. So why are these hands-on learners considered somehow “less” than those who thrive in the traditional college classroom?

Of any random 100 freshmen who start college this year, 40 will not graduate. They will drop out somewhere along the way. Whether college wasn’t built for them or life circumstances prevented them from finishing, they will live with that perceived failure for the rest of their lives. If they have student loan debt from their attempt at college, that will come along for the ride, too.

Of the 60 freshmen who do end up finishing college within six years, 20 will become chronically underemployed in fields unrelated to their degree. The bottom line is that for every five students who enroll in college, only two will graduate and get a job in their chosen field.

This is all the more reason to recognize college is not the best choice for everyone—and that is not a reflection on their intelligence, ability or motivation. If you’re a hands-on learner, take heart: there is a growing multitude of great jobs out there that need your skills.

What college is–and isn’t–for

None of this is to argue that college does not have value. It does. For many professions it’s absolutely necessary, and that’s not going to change. But with the rise of credentials, certifications, licensures, apprenticeships and other specialized industry training options, college is no longer the only way to win in a fast-changing employment landscape.

Nor should we as a society continue to tout college as the better choice, because that depends on the student’s career and lifestyle goals. There may be other postsecondary training opportunities that will prepare them for a successful career—not only faster, but also at a fraction of the cost of a traditional college education.

College is incredibly valuable if you know what you want to do and college is a necessary step to get there. But to the tune of $36,000 a year, it’s not the best place to go just to figure out life. Those decisions need to be made before ever a student steps foot on campus, or else they could be setting themselves up for an indebted future.

Still shifting

While it’s encouraging that more companies are dropping degree requirements for roles that don’t really need them, there’s still a disconnect between the idea of skills-first hiring and its actual practice. An August 2023 LinkedIn study found that between 2019 and 2022 there was a 36% increase in job postings that omitted degree requirements—but the actual number of jobs filled with un-degreed candidates was much smaller.

As a society, we have a lot of work to do—and undo. Instead of perpetuating the cultural stigmas associated with non-college pathways, we must celebrate all education and training options that lead to rewarding, viable and living-wage careers. We must show a true commitment to diversity by recognizing the skill hidden in un-degreed individuals.

We’re still in the early stages of the skills-first hiring shift, but it’s inevitable. Companies who fail to embrace it will limit themselves to an ever-shrinking talent pool, but early adopters will set the standard for hiring skilled workers—degreed or not.

Article written by:  Orville Lynch, Jr.
Mr. Lynch, a member of the legendary two-time Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame Award winning Lynch Family. Mr. Lynch is a nationally recognized urban media executive with over 20+ years of diversity recruitment and serial entrepreneur with numerous multi-million dollar exits.
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