Many companies are moving away from educational requirements in job postings for a wide range of roles. As previously reported in CWS 3.0, some organizations are ditching the college degree requirement, a trend most noticeable for middle-skill positions but one that is also taking hold at some companies for higher-skill positions. Is dropping a high school diploma requirement the next step?

While the talent shortage has eased in some sectors, others are still grappling with challenges obtaining and retaining contingent workers. Industries such as hospitality, warehousing, food service and light industrial are particularly affected. And the workers they are able to hire tend to have short tenures, as higher pay and attractive offers elsewhere lure them away.

Removing the traditional high school diploma requirement for some of these positions increases the potential applicant pool. Even better, it could provide a supportive environment for workers to build skills and advance their careers, easing the turnover problem.

Opening Up the Funnel

“I think if any organization is going to stay staffed with good talent — at least in the near future — they’re going to have to find new pools of talent that didn’t exist to them today, both internally and externally,” says Greg Muccio, head of talent acquisition at Southwest Airlines. In 2021, his program began researching eliminating high school/GED requirements for certain positions. In January 2022, the requirements were removed for airport operation and “below-the-wing” roles.

Due to a lack of a high school diploma or GED, almost 11% of the US population that Southwest would typically target for particular roles weren’t eligible, Muccio figured. Removing the requirement increased the candidate pool to almost 8.5 million employed individuals and another 700,000 that were unemployed.

“Literally overnight, there’s a 9 million-plus population of candidates that the day before I couldn’t even talk to,” he says. “So that was really huge for us.”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in school year 2019-20, the US average adjusted cohort graduation rate (ACGR) for public high school students was 87%, the highest it has been since the 79% rate first measured in 2010-11.

When a high school diploma requirement is dropped, organizations can review past applicants and reach out to those who did not previously qualify, adding many more possible hires to the top of their funnels.

Removing the requirement could also help alleviate pressures in a variety of roles. For instance, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear in March signed House Bill 32, eliminating the high school diploma requirement for classified school personnel such as school bus drivers, secretaries and other classified positions.

“We know to truly meet the needs of our future workforce, we must have enough teachers in our classrooms and classified employees in our schools carrying out critical functions like making sure the children have healthy food and can get to school safely on the bus,” Gov. Beshear said in a press statement. “This bill is a win-win-win. It gets more Kentuckians into the workforce. It helps support their educational achievements. And it helps our schools and students.”

Promoting from Within

Even when organizations withdraw the requirement, it remains important to keep workers engaged and committed. Hence, companies need to review how the change will impact advancement opportunities.

For example, Southwest first removed the diploma requirement for roles such as ramp agent, customer service agent and operations agent, but because it has a promote-from-within policy, it subsequently removed the requirement from the frontline supervisor role as well (positions above that still require a diploma or GED).

There are several reasons many companies have yet to drop their high school degree prerequisite. Perhaps the top one is a concern these employees will not be ready to take on more senior roles that require skills often learned in classrooms. But that concern can be allayed with internal programs that provide a company’s entire workforce with education and training opportunities to enhance their skills and position them for career advancement. This includes offering GED preparation classes, tutors, mentors and other support. Partnering with nonprofits and social service groups is one way to establish such programs and reach workers from underserved communities.

Students leave high school early for a variety of reasons, many of which are out of their control, and most drop out their junior and senior year after already completing most of the requirements for graduation. Therefore, hiring managers should make sure not to put job requirements in place that do nothing but “knock people out,” advises Muccio. “You just have to think, in this particular case, does this piece of paper really make someone a better candidate for this particular role? Instantly for some really important roles for us, we got 9 million more people that we could at least target or that, if they were previously interested in working for us in one of those roles, are now eligible.”