Amid an exceptionally tight labor market for both hard-to-fill roles and entry-level positions, organizations are recognizing that sometimes a college degree may not equal skill mastery and hiring based on demonstrated and verified skills might be a better approach. Many are leaning into skill-based assessments and rethinking their educational requirements.

“We have gone through probably one of the most frenzied labor markets of like anyone’s lifetime,” Sid Upadhyay, co-founder and CEO at WizeHire, told CWS 3.0. “And it’s led us to revisit and question so many of our previously assumed best practices — a great one being, for example, degree requirements and education requirements.”

In addition, changing demographics, increasing costs for higher education, the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion to an employer’s brand and more will continue to push enterprise buyers toward skills-based hiring.

For example, biopharmaceutical company Merck has found good results with its talent strategy “Skills-First at Merck,” which connects talent to well-paying job opportunities without a four-year degree requirement. In 2022, Merck posted 900 roles not requiring a four-year degree, and more than 4,000 job seekers responded to its skills-first recruitment efforts. Since then, it has been expanding strategic partnerships to bring in more diverse talent, including collaborations with Year Up, Yupro Placement, Open Classrooms and Interapt.

Jobs currently available on its site include roles such as stationary engineer, manufacturing production operations specialist, I/E electronic and instrumentation technician and maintenance technician.

“Put simply, by focusing on skills instead of a four-year degree for appropriate roles, Skills-First will make us a stronger, more competitive company that reflects the patient populations we serve,” chairman and CEO Rob Davis said in a press release.

“If we keep on with this four-year degree requirement that isn’t necessary for all entry-level roles that don’t require specialized training, then we’re going to be in a real pickle several years from now,” says Michelle Sims, CEO of skills-first placement firm Yupro Placement.

An article in last week’s newsletter discussed organizations reducing college degree requirements and exploring skills-based hiring as they struggle to find suitable talent in the tight labor market. Here, we look at ways to approach such hiring at your organization.

Partner Up

Sims advises clients seeking to start their own programs to start small. “Pick a couple of your entry-level roles that do not require specialized training and just remove the degree requirement,” she says.

However, while simply removing or changing education requirements and sticking with traditional recruiting methods might result in more applicants, they may not be the ones you seek. Hence, partnering with an outside expert may be a better way to go. They can help you to be intentional about your processes, seek new avenues to increase inclusivity, better evaluate your candidates’ skills and more.

Working with firms such as Sims’ provides organizations with talent communities comprising people with skills from alternative pathways. Outside partners can also help with skills assessments, personality tests, job descriptions and wraparound support beyond the hire.

WizeHire’s team of about 40 internal staff target smaller employers with a range of services to help “growth-oriented companies on Main Street” hire the right candidates to grow their business.

“In many cases, the college degree may not have set you up for success for the skill,” Upadhyay says. “And in other cases, with the advent of online courseware and online education, there are people that have certain skills that may not have the full credential.”

Best Practices for a Strong Start

Here are some ideas to get your initiative off the ground.

Timing is everything. When it comes to skill-based assessments, consider the appropriateness of them in the stage of the application funnel. In a situation where you expect significantly more candidates for a given role — perhaps hundreds — it makes sense to have that assessment far earlier in the funnel to be respectful of the candidates’ and managers’ time.

However, WizeHire advises clients to introduce assessment evaluations later in the application process in situations when there might only be 20 people for a specific job. “That skill-based assessment may still be valuable, but you definitely have to employ it later in the process because you need to build more of a relationship for those harder-to-fill roles before you send someone to an assessment,” explains Upadhyay.

Data versus empathy. While data is important, also bring a bit of empathy into the application and skills assessment funnel. Provide feedback to candidates — something the industry historically has not been particularly good at — and provide timely updates following assessments. Send an email or make a phone call after engaging with candidates to give feedback, provide status/next steps or just confirm that their response has been received.

Expand your wheelhouse. Consider where you are looking for talent. For instance, Yupro Placement taps nonprofit training provider organizations that are completely based on building in-demand skills to people that don’t have access to college. Many come from marginalized communities and can’t afford college based on geography or their circumstances. In addition, its parent company, training provider Year Up, funnels graduates of its tuition-free program to its staffing division, which then places them with organizations and provides coaching, support and additional upskilling.

“They don’t have a degree, but our conversion rate is exceptional into full-time employment,” Sims explains.

Tear the Paper Ceiling

Employers such as Accenture, General Assembly, LinkedIn, Walmart and Workday are among nearly 50 employers, talent developers and nonprofits joining the Opportunity@Work organization and the Ad Council in the “Tear the Paper Ceiling” campaign, which aims to change the narrative around the value and potential of workers who are “Skilled Through Alternative Routes”(STARs), rather than a traditional four-year college program. The coalition includes talent providers such as Yupro Placement as well. The campaign provides resources for employers to expand their own STARs hiring and invites STARs to share their own stories. Businesses visiting the site can also access a suite of tools that includes the “Tear the Paper Ceiling Hiring Playbook for Employers” to help them get started with skills-based hiring practices in their organization.

“College is a wonderful bridge to opportunity for millions, but it should never be a drawbridge excluding anyone who doesn’t cross it from thriving careers,” says Opportunity@Work CEO Byron Auguste. “Millions of STARs have demonstrated the skills to succeed in millions of today’s in-demand jobs and the adaptability to fill the jobs of tomorrow.”

“This collaborative campaign is a critical next step in our mission to create a US labor market where if you can do the job, you can get the job,” he says.