Looking Beyond Degrees in hiring

In the midst of the pandemic, there are again renewed calls for re-thinking the value- and ROI- of a college degree [and the requisite residential life surrounding being in a classroom]. We know the impact of Covid has hit harder in minority communities; that minority students are disproportionately impacted and their capacity to pay for their degree has been greatly affected by the tremendous job losses throughout the country. I view this discussion within this context as consequential, in particular, for community colleges where almost 50% of all minority students are enrolled).

In the recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education’s newsletter, The Edge, reporter Goldie Blumenstyk discussed the new executive order of President Trump which urged federal agencies to “look beyond degrees.” She reviews the pros and cons….:

Hopes — and doubts — about new attention to skills in hiring.

This month I wrote that I wasn’t sure what to make of President Trump’s executive order urging federal agencies to look beyond degrees in hiring, especially since it came as colleges face their biggest headwinds in memory. I appreciate the insights many of you shared.

Advocates for skills-based hiring tend to see it as a way to level the playing field for qualified job candidates who happen not to be college graduates. And some of you see the federal move as an opportunity for higher ed. Rovy Branon, vice provost for the University of Washington’s Continuum College, said that while degrees can signal mastery of skills, colleges need to do a better job of accurately capturing and verifying that. Now is the time, he said, “to create faster and cheaper pathways for a new market that wants and needs it.” And Shalin Jyotishi, of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, noted that “sometimes a degree isn’t the only/right credential a learner needs, and that’s OK.” Jyotishi, the assistant director for economic development and community engagement at APLU, also put in a plug for an op-ed he just co-wrote, arguing for embedding industry certifications into degree programs, an approach that was popular with readers of The Edge when I wrote about it in December.

Less positively, I heard from folks wondering whether the new order would create confusion — and perhaps worse. Matthew Hora, of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, worried that implementation could emphasize assessments of so-called “soft skills” like communication that are “cultural constructions” and could “open the door to even more hiring discrimination.”

A related concern for me: In recent weeks, we’ve seen a bevy of announcements from colleges, companies, and nonprofits about new programs to help people skill up, especially in the digital realm. The list includes Google’s new career certifications and scholarships, Microsoft’s “global skills initiative,” the Digital US coalition, and the new nonprofit SkillUp. As well meaning as these initiatives seem, they miss the bigger issue — that many of the 40 million newly unemployed people didn’t lose their jobs because they lacked skills. They lost them because the pandemic shut down their workplaces.

Maybe that’s the jolt that will prompt some to find better jobs, but skills alone won’t guarantee a shiny new career. Better coordination of state work-force policies, as this new effort calls for, could help. Ultimately, though, we need a much stronger, growing economy, and that is at least a few years away, if we’re lucky (and if more people would just wear masks). Without a recovery, this Huffington Post reporter’s assessment is worth remembering: “Re-skilling is sort of like playing musical chairs: People are racing to grab a job and sit down, and not everyone will get a seat.”

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