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University or work-life experience? Do college degrees matter?

Davos 2023 ; Are university degrees losing their esteem?

Are university degrees losing their esteem? Image: Photo by Muhammad Rizwan on Unsplash

Jonas Prising
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, ManpowerGroup Inc.
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • In 2022, 75% of companies in a global survey reported talent shortages and difficulty hiring, a 16-year high.
  • To expand their talent pools, firms are easing or eliminating the university degree filter in online job applications, looking instead at skills gleaned through prior work and life experience and natural leadership qualities.
  • Giving workers from all backgrounds equal access to opportunity, while meeting the demand for skilled talent, begins by reimagining the criteria used to source and hire the best people.

The hiring landscape has never been more dynamic. Companies around the world are finding creative and innovative ways to adapt to the new demands of the post-COVID-19 talent marketplace. They are reimagining their hiring strategies and re-thinking what it means to nurture and build their teams for the challenges that lie ahead.

One of the more interesting developments is in the area of degree requirements or, as some would have it, degree bias. In 2022, 75% of companies in the ManpowerGroup global survey reported talent shortages and difficulty hiring, a 16-year high. To expand their talent pools, more and more firms are easing or eliminating the degree filter in online job applications for certain positions, looking instead at skills gleaned through prior work and life experience and natural leadership qualities. This increases candidate flow and the ability to achieve diversity and inclusion goals — the 'S' in ESG.

Focusing less on degrees (tearing through the paper ceiling) and more on ability is a win-win for employees and employers. Workers have more options and opportunities for career advancement and growth, while businesses are better positioned to meet the growing demand for talent, achieve productivity goals, enhance competitiveness and implement true diversity in the workplace. As Adam Grant said: “The mark of higher education isn't the knowledge you accumulate in your head. It's the skills you gain about how to learn.”

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  • How to follow Davos 2023

We must become creators of talent and focus less on university degrees

Only 11% of business leaders strongly agree that graduates from higher education have the necessary competencies to work in their companies. And, many employers now acknowledge that degree requirements can block access to the right talent. I meet with them almost daily and I’ve come to agree. Education is about lifelong learning, where knowledge is acquired beyond the borders of a classroom. The education we gain through intangibles, such as life experience or prior work, can be just as valuable for determining a person’s ability to learn new skills and collaborate or lead effectively. For me, one of the ways I learn most is through the connections I make as I meet with our teams, clients and associates across our business around the world.

With the skills needed to succeed changing faster than ever and the need to unleash dormant potential becoming more urgent, taking a more expansive view of a candidate’s skills and capabilities is imperative. Employers can use data analytics and science-based assessments to make better choices and unearth rich talent that they otherwise might have missed — which is good for them, the economy and our society.

Here are three definitive, but not exclusive, steps organizations can take to become creators of talent:

1. Hire for learnability

We must fast-track training and reskilling of existing employees to ensure we have a future-ready workforce, while also attracting those who are not currently participating in the labour market. Thinking about 'learnability' when hiring is the best way to prepare for whatever new jobs and skills will be needed in the next year or the next decade.

2. Promote based on what you can do, not what you have done

By hiring based on potential versus past performance, businesses can fill talent shortages while accessing experience, unique skills and innovative thinking. In doing so they can develop talent and advance people internally, saving time and money on external recruiting.

3. Have regular career conversations with employees

This helps to enable a learning culture and there is a direct correlation with higher employee engagement and productivity. Employees regularly say they would be more engaged at work if their managers have ongoing career conversations with them. By encouraging and focusing on development, organizations foster a workplace where people are more involved, productive and focused on career development.


The tech industry leads the way

We’re already seeing signs the game is changing. News stories about the loosening of university degree requirements in job postings are becoming more frequent, with tech companies often at the forefront. In recent months, we’ve seen the likes of Google, Microsoft, Apple and others begin to take a more holistic approach to candidate sourcing and recruiting. They’re applying their innovation mindsets to finding people with the raw skills, intelligence and drive to help them continue to lead in their individual categories.

Giving workers from all backgrounds equal access to opportunity, while meeting the critical demand for skilled talent at every level, begins by reimagining the criteria we use to source and hire the very best people. University degrees are important, but only one consideration among many.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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