“Skills-first” hiring has been successful across various industries, removing college degree requirements as employment barriers.

The case for removing educational hiring requirements

“Skills-first” hiring has been successful across various industries, removing college degree requirements as employment barriers.

Late last year, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox announced an initiative to eliminate the state’s requirement for a bachelor’s degree in hiring and encouraged “local governments and the private sector” to do the same thing.

“A college degree is great, but it’s not for everyone,” Cox wrote on social media announcing his plan. “A degree shouldn’t be the only way to get a good paying job or have a fulfilling career.”

In the announcement, Cox highlighted that of the 1,080 state jobs in the executive branch, 1,058—or 98 percent—do not require bachelor’s degrees. When looking at job applications, state hiring managers are directed to look at relevant skills instead of a résumé and higher education status.

The move highlights a push for increased diversity when hiring within Utah’s business community. From AI-built hiring platforms that emphasize skills and ideas over institutional credentials to anonymizing the hiring process, companies are trying to improve the diversity and effectiveness of their teams.

In recent years, the concept of “skills-first” hiring has gained momentum, with the idea being that companies prioritize a candidate’s experience over institutional qualifications. For some, this has meant eliminating college degree requirements.

Many candidates who would have been previously locked out of applying for jobs can access them more easily, in theory making the hiring process more equitable. This is a significant change from previous workplace norms that promoted education as an absolute necessity for many jobs.

But while those norms persisted for decades, they remained unbalanced with the pool of US workers. As of 2021, according to the Department of Education, only 36 percent of US citizens had a bachelor’s degree or higher, meaning more than 200 million people were automatically locked out of applying for these jobs.

Many politicians, including former President Barack Obama, have backed the shift toward “skills-first” hiring. States like Pennsylvania, Alaska and Georgia have all axed their college degree requirements in hiring. Even current President Joe Biden backed the idea in his State of the Union address last month.

Last year, the Harvard Business Review conducted a study to scrutinize this shift more closely. They worked with labor-market data company Emsi Burning Glass to analyze 51 million job postings from 2017 to 2020. Their findings showed that many mid-level jobs were not requiring college degrees.

Some of this change was motivated by a need to expand hiring pools in response to the labor shortage, HBR found.

“If demand for talent far outreaches supply, employers de-emphasize degrees,” authors Joseph Fuller, Christina Langer and Matt Sigelman wrote. 

But what started as a shift to increase the number of candidates has led to some companies realizing that this hiring method might generally be more effective. In a 2021 report, HBR branded the potential of these workers “untapped talent” and focused on how structural barriers around credential-based hiring have reduced worker access to the job market. They estimated that 27 million people in the US could be qualified as “hidden workers.”

According to CNBC, technology is one of the biggest areas of cultural change around this hiring type. This shift was largely because a shortage of workers with relevant skills forced the industry to embrace other approaches to hiring.

An AI program in the UK called Applied has created software that anonymizes candidates and focuses on prompts for hiring managers. In this system, they don’t even use resumes to hire—employers simply hire based on a candidate’s approach to the potential job and familiarity with the work involved.

But it hasn’t just been state governments and tech companies. The hotel chain Hilton and book publisher Penguin Random House have done the same. And NPR profiled a company called Ovia Health in Boston in 2021 that used “project-based” hiring to check a candidate’s ability to fit the role.

"This idea we’ve had as a nation over the past 40 years that every kid needs a bachelor’s degree is bad for our kids, and it’s bad for our economy."

The shift also helps highlight a pivotal change within the business community. As discussions about diversity and equity have become more prominent globally, there have also been changes to how companies respond to marginalized groups like formerly incarcerated people.

Columbia Business School, for example, has run the ReEntry Acceleration Program for several years. This program aims to convince businesses that the stigma surrounding formerly incarcerated workers is inaccurate and harmful to businesses. Focused on Columbia business students and private sector workers, the program hosted a series of discussions with hospitals in New York City focused on reducing the barriers to entry for this marginalized pool of candidates.

The Columbia program has worked with major corporations like Autodesk, Shake Shack and Fresh Direct. They even cite research showing that formerly incarcerated workers perform very well in their jobs. In Utah, this means the 14,000 currently incarcerated people could be future employees, dramatically expanding the hiring pool. And with increasing access to education in prisons, more skills-based programs can work with this group of candidates.

The ACLU has also helped make a case for this shift in practices. They published a report in 2017 that argued the retention rate for formerly incarcerated employees was very high at companies like Total Wine that had “banned the [incarceration history] box” on application forms.

All of this speaks to a potential shift in the relevance of college degrees. While education was primarily shaped in the 19th and 20th centuries around the needs of capitalism and utility for companies, according to Inside Higher Ed, it is now transforming to focus on the needs of an increasingly connected and knowledge-based global community.

“In times of profound social change, innovative institutions emerge as profoundly different alternatives to mainstream colleges and universities,” authors Arthur Levine and Scott Van Pelt wrote in 2021.

They argued that research universities had started as marginal programs only to become mainstream, and they find that universities allowing students to learn at their own pace and focusing on “upskilling” have the potential to shift education across the globe.

Meanwhile, Fortune argued that “college degrees could become obsolete” in an article earlier this year, finding that with the change in job recruitment, colleges and universities could see their enrollment numbers decrease.

In Utah, Cox reaffirmed his support for both candidates seeking higher education and those that haven’t. But the point his team emphasized while announcing their shift was to “focus on the essential requirements and qualifications necessary to perform the job.”

This, he said in his December press conference, meant they could open up jobs to people seeking employment after an extended absence or to those who come from marginalized communities.

“This is just a start, and we know that we can do more,” Cox says. “This idea we’ve had as a nation over the past 40 years that every kid needs a bachelor’s degree is bad for our kids, and it’s bad for our economy.”

Jack Dodson is a reporter and documentary filmmaker most recently based in Palestine-Israel from 2018-2022. He has reported for Vice, BBC, The Intercept, Middle East Eye, among many others. He has a master’s in investigative journalism and documentary from Columbia Journalism School and a bachelor’s degree from Elon University in rhetoric.