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Rethinking recruitment: Are university degrees necessary in today’s world?

November 14, 2023
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Back in the day, life’s path was pretty clear for most. Graduate from school, proceed to university, and then find a job to stay in for years to come. As we all know, however, this is no longer the case for the younger generations.

Going to uni used to be almost free, but now costs around £9,000 per year. Add this to housing, groceries, and other expenses, and an undergraduate degree becomes a real financial burden, estimated at £40,000 per student. If you consider that a good career isn’t guaranteed anymore, even with a university degree, it’s understandable that many are re-evaluating whether they should attend university at all, especially in a rapidly rising cost-of-living crisis.

Alongside this, we are seeing more and more businesses opting to remove degree requirements from their job descriptions: for example, recent LinkedIn data shows a whopping 90% increase in UK job postings not requiring a degree between 2021 and 2022. But is this trend here to stay? Do university degrees indicate anything important? And should you consider removing degree requirements from your job specs too?

What does a degree tell about a candidate?

In order to answer these questions, we must first ask what you can learn about a candidate from their university degree. The main thing you might hope to discern based on someone’s university course is a particular skill or field of knowledge — you’d hope that a psychology graduate has, at the very least, some basic understanding of the human mind, or that a maths grad can contend with calculus questions and algebra equations.

However, this is not all university degrees can tell you. To receive a degree with honours, an individual has usually had to prove some skills, namely perseverance, dedication, hardworkingness, industriousness, and diligence. If it’s a hard science degree, you can safely assume they are numerical, and a humanities degree will tell you that a candidate was able to process large quantities of information and produce something valuable.

The institution itself could also give an indication about certain attributes, for example, a person who went to a top Russell Group university usually had to go through a number of challenges before they were accepted, showing resilience.

The university experience as a whole helps young people grow, become more independent, and become more careful about their time management — all great indicators for businesses looking for their next hire.

Is this accurate?

Unfortunately, while degrees could prove all of the great things listed above, they don’t necessarily do. They could also indicate that your candidate is of a higher income family, comes from a family of scholars who have helped them get into university, or is privileged in other ways. University admissions are often biased, and that means that a brilliant candidate of a low income or minority background may face additional challenges in obtaining a good degree.

By making a university degree a requirement, you may be affecting the diversity of your candidate pool. In fact, simply considering an applicant’s educational background could influence your decisions with non-predictive information, which could stop you from recruiting a perfect hire for someone who was simply more fortunate than them. So, while university degrees could be useful, the risk of relying on them can be much bigger than its benefit.

Further reading: How to mitigate unconscious bias in the hiring process?

The alternative: skills-based hiring

Luckily, a degree is not the only indicator of talent, a fact that is increasingly recognised by businesses. So, what do businesses look for instead? According to the same LinkedIn data, companies are moving away from degrees and are instead looking at skills-first hiring: recruiting professionals are five times more likely to search by skills over degrees. What’s more, skills-based hiring is up 63%, and 75% of recruiters claim that this will become a priority for their company in the next year and a half.

What is skills-based hiring?

Skills-based hiring means that candidates are going to be selected based on their hard and soft skills, rather than relying on experience and education alone. Employers are utilising assessments, alongside traditional structured interviews, to quantify applicants’ behaviours, traits, knowledge, and skills, acknowledging them as better indicators of performance compared to previous workplaces or university education.

With apprenticeships and in-work training becoming more commonplace, it is no wonder that businesses prefer to hire a candidate that has the capacity to do the job well, and then teach them how to, rather than depending on certificates and diplomas that may influence their bias and aren’t as predictive. If you think about it, most organisations have their own way of doing things, which means they’d have to train any candidate anyway — they may as well test for specific skills their best performers possess rather than a degree that can very often say little about someone’s ability.

Conclusion: should you add a degree requirement to your job ads?

Of course, there isn’t a clear yes or no answer, as it depends on many factors. It is clear that some roles require a degree, sometimes by law — doctors, solicitors, and teachers, for example. For jobs that demand very specific and specialised knowledge, sometimes a university degree can give a real indication of suitability and capability. Even in those circumstances, however, we’d recommend that you don’t put too much emphasis on marks on institutional prestige, as they can increase your unconscious bias.

That said, for most roles, university degrees are not great predictors of success. If the job you’re hiring for mainly requires a successful candidate to learn on the job, then surely a degree isn’t going to be a better selection criterion than specific skills and behavioural traits. According to the LinkedIn study, roles that would particularly benefit from a skills-based approach are accounting, administration, and engineering, while the financial services, hospitality, and IT industries are particularly likely to adopt such a method.

By removing the degree requirement from your job ads, you can expand your talent pool by nearly 10 times. This becomes significant when you consider the shortage of talent businesses deal with, and the move of many companies towards generalists and away from specialists.

If you don’t trust us, trust giants like General Motors, Google, Bank of America, and Tesla, who have already moved towards a skills-based approach. In fact, IBM claims that 50% of its US jobs are open to anyone with the right skills (or the willingness to learn them). This shows that, as long as your procedure includes scientifically-robust methods such as Thrive’s assessments, skills-based hiring can be much more effective than relying on degrees.

If you want to hear more about Thrive’s leading assessments, book a demo with us today.

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