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3 ways to make skills-based hiring a reality in tech

Kate Verrill, LaunchCode
Kate Verrill
Kate Verrill currently serves as the director of people operations at LaunchCode, supporting both the apprenticeship program and internal employees organizationwide. Kate manages employee lifecycles, from onboarding to offboarding, including the development and implementation of HR policies and processes.

Technology and industry are ever-changing—and human resource departments have to adapt if they want to continue meeting the needs of the companies they serve. A recent survey of skilled trade employers found that 42% named skills certifications as top priorities when hiring, but almost 56% still required college degrees for entry-level jobs. Clearly, employers believe that there is value in skills and job experience, but there is an apparent disconnect between this belief and hiring practices.

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Many hiring policies are stuck on the idea that a college degree is the only way to be prepared for these positions and haven’t caught up to what today’s employers actually want (and need). It’s time for HR departments to update their policies and acknowledge the many ways entry-level technologists develop the skills they need to do the job.

It is easier to look at a résumé, see a computer science degree and assume that person has learned what they need to do the job. However, technology moves faster than degree programs can be set up to support it, and a degree is not necessarily an indication of practical knowledge. Even if they have degrees, potential hires need to keep up with industry advances and have a working knowledge to be truly effective. Experienced candidates aren’t easy to find when hiring committees are stretched too thin to gather the necessary input and suggestions from the team needing new talent (who are also stressed from the staff shortage). A skills-based hiring approach can quickly resolve the debate between job experience versus degree, but HR departments will need to look at the bigger picture.

See also: Tech layoffs are rising—why Josh Bersin says that’s an opportunity for HR

A college degree certainly has value. You learn a lot in college, meet new people and grow independently as an adult. I am certainly not anti-college, but the myth that higher education is the only path to success is false, as is the belief that it’s the only qualification one needs to succeed.

A college degree (on its own) does not mean somebody can survive in the business world. School is a space where you’re promoted to the next level every year if you have the appropriate credits. Professionally, landing jobs and gaining promotions do not work this way—you must apply and compete for them. The formula for success requires more.

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There are also plenty of reasons access to higher education might not be attainable for some, from learning styles to financial limitations and everything in between. There are many intelligent and successful people without college degrees, and some of the top tech companies were even founded by college dropouts. You can certainly handle an entry-level job if you can run a company without a college degree.

In technology, the landscape changes so quickly that valuable employees are those who constantly learn and adapt to new tech. It is wise for HR leaders to look for curious and intrinsically motivated potential hires that will be lifelong learners with good work ethics. Job qualifications should focus on what the employee actually needs to know and do to succeed in the desired position.

See also: Most employers still require a college degree, but for how much longer?

Evaluating candidates and employees based on skill sets takes more effort than clicking a button to filter for “bachelor’s degrees.” But choosing from a broader scope of requirements can bring in a broader scope of candidates who think and approach problems from different perspectives. Skills-based hiring has the potential to build stronger teams and organizations than simply filling the office with college graduates.

So, how do you make it happen? Here are three recommendations:

  1. Prioritize passion and drive.

Hiring someone with an aptitude for the job is a must, but that’s just a baseline—what’s (arguably) more important is their passion and drive. You can’t list “passion and drive” on a CV as easily as a college degree, but you can still measure somebody’s enthusiasm and determination in other ways.

We talk a lot about passion, drive and aptitude at LaunchCode; we even have our own way of assessing applicants for these traits. When one of our students completes a course and is ready to interview with companies, we can attest to their drive (because we know how challenging the course is and how much dedication is needed to complete it). Think about what might work at your business to ensure that these “hard to measure” traits get the attention they deserve in the onboarding process. When you do, you’ll find employees who will truly excel in their positions, regardless of educational background.

  1. Change ‘degree’ to ‘skills certificate.’

HR professionals need to spread a wider net when recruiting. If you want to find someone with a strong work ethic and specific knowledge for a position without the gatekeeping of a college degree, skills certifications are one way to accomplish this. Tech giants such as Google and Microsoft offer a variety of skills-based certifications that demonstrate a working knowledge of specific programs and workflows. Even platforms such as LinkedIn and Upwork have assessments that candidates or freelancers can take to prove their competencies. Organizations and businesses, such as LaunchCode, offer courses and boot camps in various technologies for those starting out or looking to change careers.

An excellent first step is to update job postings to include skills certificates in place of college degrees. These professional certifications cover an incredibly wide range of skill sets, from network administration to cybersecurity, design and much more. They are often more relatable to the job than college degree programs and much more accessible to today’s wider talent pool.

  1. Start immediately.

In 2020, LinkedIn’s CEO reported a 40% increase in job postings that don’t require a degree compared to 2019. At the same time, there was a 21% increase in job postings listing skills and responsibilities instead of qualifications and requirements. More companies are increasingly learning the importance of filling roles with people who have the practical skills to perform their duties, regardless of degree.

Related: Requiring college degrees: a sign of a ‘lazy employer’? 

Strict degree-based hiring is an outdated method that stifles innovation in a constantly changing world. Technology moves too fast for degree programs to keep up, which is how serious (but hilarious) faux pas happen when employers keep this in mind. For instance, within weeks of Google announcing its new programming language, Carbon, in July, a (now-infamous) job posting made the rounds on social media. The post sought a junior carbon developer who “must have 10 years of Carbon experience—no exceptions.” Talk about setting an impossible bar.

Despite this obvious (and funny) example, we all make the same mistake when we add hard-and-fast degree requirements to job postings. This narrow, rigid habit is one of many factors contributing to the U.S. labor shortage.

There’s no arguing that college and university programs are valuable and enriching, and there are many great reasons for people to pursue bachelor’s degrees. A degree is certainly one indicator of the type of person you might want to hire, but it’s not the only one. Any good HR department wants to widen its talent pool, diversify skills in the workplace and find those who will truly excel in their positions. To make it happen, we must remove antiquated barriers to entry—timely innovation depends on it.