By Amanda Cage and Kermit Kaleba

This article was originally published in The Hill.

With fierce competition for talent in today’s labor market, many employers ask if a college degree is really necessary. They range from giants like Google to small companies in the nation’s heartland. For example, Central Iowa Vapors in Cedar Rapids recently decided that new hires no longer need degrees after a star manager trainee revealed that he never even graduated high school.

Policymakers are also starting to remove degree barriers. The federal government recently released new rules that make it easier for people without four-year college degrees to apply for federal jobs. And in Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan removed degree requirements for thousands of state jobs.

The trend is building. A 2022 Harvard Business Review report analyzed more than 50 million job postings and found a clear shift in the workplace. Growing numbers of employers are looking for skills and competencies, rather than reflexively relying on degrees.

While we support education after high school for all Americans and believe degrees lead to better careers and lives, these are much-needed steps in the right direction. It’s a win-win for workers and employers as “degree inflation” subsides and more jobs are open to qualified applicants.

Yet, simply removing degree requirements won’t automatically lead to greater equity and access for workers of color and others who struggle to find jobs. As Lumina Foundation’s Stronger Nation shows, Black, Hispanic, Latino, and Native American adults are much less likely to have a college degree than their white counterparts. So they face tougher barriers to jobs — even when they have the right skills. Removing arbitrary degree requirements helps to level the playing field, but we must do more.

Next steps

We need coordinating, systemic changes to create a more equitable workforce. Here’s a good start: about 100 major U.S. companies have committed to offering high-wage jobs with career paths to people without four-year degrees. These include the Business Roundtable’s Multiple Pathways program; OneTen, an initiative to hire 1 million Black workers over the next decade; and Opportunity@Work’s efforts to draw attention to workers who are “skilled through alternative routes” (STARS).

These and other employers are rewriting job descriptions, revising interview processes, adding more training, and developing new career pathways. Companies can expand on these opportunities by partnering with community colleges and other providers offering high-quality non-degree training. More companies should also consider funding tuition to make it easier for workers to sharpen their skills and continue learning beyond entry level. And employers can’t lose sight of job quality—a job not requiring a degree is not an excuse to pay less or offer fewer benefits.

Many community colleges already work closely with employers to align programs with jobs. But here, more can be done, too. Community colleges and other training providers need to focus more attention on communities of color and ensure they provide the right skills and resources for students to succeed both on campus and in the marketplace.

Meanwhile, policymakers must ensure that lifting degree requirements for public sector jobs means those jobs are truly accessible to people who have been turned away due to their race, ethnicity, or income. We need to get closer to our peer nations to fund workforce development. While some states are increasing investments in non-degree credentials to help workers quickly train for new jobs, more needs to be done to sustain and expand efforts to create equitable pathways to employment.
If we get this right, skills-based hiring can be crucial in expanding opportunities for millions of workers while helping U.S. businesses compete with wider talent pools. Remember — jobs that don’t require degrees still need advanced skills. While removing degree requirements is a good first step, helping workers get the skills they need is just as essential as they learn, earn, and build a brighter future.

Amanda Cage is president and CEO of the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, which invests in a network of communities that advance workforce development. Kermit Kaleba is strategy director for Employer Aligned Credential Programs at Lumina Foundation, which works for racial equity as it helps all Americans learn beyond high school. The two leaders are working together to advance industry partnerships with community colleges.

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