More employers looking less at credentials, more at skills

Pre-COVID, the supply of and demand for middle-skill workers created a mismatch in our labor market. The “skills gap” pushed employers to come up with solutions that would combat the talent shortage, focusing less on the piece of paper a candidate had and more on the skills the interested applicant had or could learn.

Now, given the pandemic and changing economy, this prioritization of skills over a certain type of degree is getting a new push, according to The Hechinger Report, through a trend that was already under way before the health care crisis: “pre-hiring assessments.”

Skeptical that university degrees are the best measure of whether candidates have the skills they need, employers were already looking for ways that applicants could prove it—including in fields where that was not previously required.

By removing the requirement of a degree, this process holds the promise of opening doors to capable candidates who never got one, [Steve Yadzinski with Jobs for the Future] and others said.

“We’ve conflated employability with university degrees. We shouldn’t,” said Jacob Hsu, CEO of Catalyte, which conducts tests designed to find job candidates who have the potential to become software engineers, whether or not they went to college.

As I wrote here, skills acquisition is shown to be just as valuable as a bachelor’s degree. And having a bachelor’s degree doesn’t automatically mean someone has “exceptional ability“—billionaire tech moguls Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Larry Ellison all dropped out of college.

Pre-hiring assessments are designed to measure soft skills too, such as “whether applicants can work in teams, communicate and make good decisions.” And while the more sophisticated, customized tests can carry a hefty price tag, company leaders have said it is “cheaper than hiring the wrong person.”

Employers are also using hackathons—competitive events for computer programmers and others involved in software development to collaborate and solve problems—to identify prospective candidates.

At a hackathon at Stony Brook University before the Covid-19 disruptions, for example, tech firm representatives prowled for talent among the 150 hackers from around the country vying for $5,000 in prizes that would reward their ingenuity and hands-on skills.

“A resume is a two-dimensional view of someone,” said Ryan Behan, senior director of engineering at Netsmart Technologies, as he gestured around the all-purpose room where the busy hackathon was under way. “You come to a place like this, you’re seeing them in their element.”

In partnership with Apple, IBM, the White House and other businesses, the Ad Council launched a workforce readiness campaign today called, “Find Something New.” The campaign encourages Americans to think outside four-year degrees and learn more about reskilling options and training paths for in-demand careers, which the Ad Council states “will empower people all across the country to find the education and training path that’s right for them” and can “expand their opportunities” during the changing job market.