Are We Unnecessarily Limiting the Talent Pool by Requiring University Degrees?

Are We Unnecessarily Limiting the Talent Pool by Requiring University Degrees?

In a year when most everything seems to be “unprecedented,” we can add to the list the fact that we are now in the longest period of year-on-year decline in people productivity since measurement began in the early 20th century.

For the past 10 years, we have seen continued downward pressure on productivity numbers. It is true, economists will tell you, that productivity does not always need to go up. However, when it goes down for such a lengthy period of time, it has an impact on GDP, and eventually on our living standards. Add to the historical downward trend the hit on productivity from months and months of pandemic-driven disruption, and we are taking a massive double blow to our economy.

Recently, I researched trends and challenges impacting people productivity and found that it is a complex issue, partly affected by the fact that, in the 21st century, we still measure productivity mainly using early 20th century methods and thinking. This 20th century thinking and doing drives many of the challenges we face. To get out of the situation are in, we are going to need all hands on the productivity pump. We cannot afford to continue to work as we have in the past; we need to think and do differently — we need to work smarter.

Are Degrees Really Necessary?

Given we are going to need all the help we can get, I would argue that perhaps it is time to question, among other things, the requirement of a university degree for many professional jobs. I must admit, this thought only recently came to mind when my wife, the head of fundraising at a charity, pointed out that “degree bias” may not be helping. She found that, when considering future candidates for new positions, she was only presented with those who had university degrees. When she asked why, the response was “we require a degree” for open positions.

That raises an important question: Are we hiring for relevant experience, skills, best fit, and academic achievement, or should we be hiring based on who has relevant experience, skills, and the best fit — degree not required?

In the 1960s, my grandfather was in senior management at the local General Motors factory in Dayton, Ohio. He did not have any academic qualifications. He started sweeping floors at the factory in the 1950s, and he worked his way up to general manager of maintenance, a prestigious and lucrative position. I recall him being regularly recruited to leave GM and come work for competing Ford factories for more money and benefits, despite having no degree. However, he was very loyal to GM and never considered leaving. His sons were also moving up the ranks in the GM factory; it had become a family affair.

This story was common in the American Midwest in the middle of the 20th century. The demand for skilled and experienced workers was at an all-time high in the boom years after World War II. A college degree was a nice-to-have, not the arbiter of relevance for a particular position. As America became more prosperous, college education became more achievable for many, and more people achieved degreed status. As the job market tightened in the 1970s and ’80s due to successive recessions, a degree became a way to limit who organizations looked to hire. This is, I would argue, where modern degree bias began in the US.

In the 21st century, we are in a very different world. College dropouts like Mark Zuckerberg can become multibillionaires in what is now a digital economy and society. The old barriers are falling, rapidly — or are they?

Stuck in the Past

I would argue the old barriers are standing fast, as the job market is in for a tough time of it for the foreseeable future. And the goal of earning a degree seems to be fading on the horizon for many, thanks to the increasingly astronomical cost of higher education. This is why more people are now choosing vocational paths to learn relevant skills for the 21st century.

To facilitate this, as a society, we should invest more in vocational/apprenticeship learning. Companies big and small that grumble about a shortage of specifically skilled talent should partner with governments to put in place the option for people to learn a trade or profession while on the job. Canada is exceptionally good at this. In 2017, Canada had roughly 512,000 people in vocational/apprenticeship programs, while the US had 533,000 people enrolled in such programs. The US may win in terms of absolute numbers, but it also has nine times the population of Canada. Therefore, the number of Canadians in vocational/apprenticeship programs is significantly higher as a share of the workforce. Perhaps that is why Canadian productivity has been higher over recent years than in the US.

Unless we actively pursue change, degree bias could sideline millions of talented and bright people just when we need them the most. They could be the innovators of the next amazing tech gadget or service; they could fill gaps in technical skills, helping to solve the productivity challenge we face.

As they say, we shouldn’t let a crisis go to waste. Let’s use this double whammy of a pandemic-hit economy and declining people productivity to try new things and adopt new attitudes toward how we define “talent.”

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