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Might Be Time for Employers to Reevaluate the Worth of a Degree

Nobody asked me, but here goes. I spent 15 years in Human Resources managing the processes for full life cycle talent management. I had significant influence over who was hired into the organizations I worked for. Also who got promoted, mentored, trained and exposure to senior leaders.

Due to physical limitations, I had to exit corporate America and currently offer recruiting and consulting services as a small business owner. I have been developing training for executive teams to give them a comprehensive picture of how Generation Z will impact the workplace and how they may need to shift their programs and policies to maximize performance for this cohort.

Three of my primary recommendations for entry-level professional hiring based on the work of Dr. Jean Twenge in iGen along with Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in The Coddling of the American Mind are as follows:

  • Perform a serious analysis of the positions tied to your organization’s critical competencies. Determine the educational requirements for those positions and recruit from the top schools for those positions if specialized training is required. If you make cars and need automotive engineers, recruit degreed automotive engineers. If you are a customer service organization, recruit for those competencies and teach your systems, products, and processes.
  • Identify the technical positions in your organization that require technical or professional certification and recruit from the schools with the best programs for those specific skills. Accountants and attorneys come to mind.
  • For all other positions, look for high school graduates who have four years of successful work experience in a high turnover industry such as retail or service and figure out how to train them in job-specific skills yourself.

In other words, stop using a college degree as the bar for entry unless a position absolutely requires it. Why you ask? So many reasons, but to begin with grade inflation is a serious problem at the university level. And while grades are going up, time spent in educational activities at the university level has declined about 40% since 1950.

At the same time, the admission criteria have been relaxed. So an employer is buying a pool of lower quality students, who don’t spend a lot of time on their education and get rewarded for it. This is a horrible combination. It is time to rethink what a college degree actually represents in terms of acting as a predictor for future success.

And it is about to get even worse. According to The New York Times:

Colleges have long been concerned with scoring patterns on the SAT that seem unfavorable to certain socioeconomic groups: Higher scores have been found to correlate with students coming from a higher-income families and having better-educated parents.

David Coleman, chief executive of the College Board, has described a trial version of the tool, which has been field-tested by 50 colleges, in recent interviews. The plan to roll it out officially, to 150 schools this year and more broadly in 2020, was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

The adversity score would be a number between 1 and 100, with an average student receiving a 50. It would be calculated using 15 factors, like the relative quality of the student’s high school and the crime rate and poverty level of the student’s home neighborhood. The score would not be reported to the student, only to college officials.

In practical terms, colleges will be admitting students with even lower scores who may not have been prepared as well, but will likely award them higher grades than the quality of their work actually deserves. Universities used to care about preparing students for a career. Now, they function as the great societal leveler to ensure equality of outcome as a primary mission.

All this is occurring in an environment with skyrocketing tuition and crippling student debt, where making the decision to go to work might be a better option for some bright, hardworking kids. And the young adults who chose this option can document their success in real terms that relate to the organizations they work for.

They go into entry-level jobs and have the opportunity to get promoted into more specialized functions fairly quickly based on their performance. Often the entry-level jobs require them to work with customers and solve problems. They have to be on time, dependable, prepared, and motivated to learn on the job. To be promoted they must also have some understanding of the business and how it works. Their ability to succeed and learn is far more tangible than a diploma in the current environment.

If I were still a leader in talent management for a corporation, I would be designing strategies and programs to shift entry level recruitment away from universities except in cases where it was absolutely necessary. And I would encourage any organization I advised to do the same.


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