Issue #86
#86 - Skills Vs. Credentials: Hiring Starts To Shift
October 06, 2023

Ask a recruiter who worked at Google circa 2005-2010 what "IHED" was, and you'll get a knowing, nervous -- almost pained -- chuckle:

Alas, dear readers, IHED was the "International Higher Education Database": a massive internal spreadsheet maintained by a full-time employee, comprised of hundreds of universities and one of four rankings per school:

  • Elite
  • Top tier
  • Middle tier
  • Non-selective

Trust me, if you attended an accredited four-year university, anywhere in the world, your school sat, thoroughly-judged, in this spreadsheet. And when you applied to Google, the first thing a recruiter did was open the spreadsheet to figure out how your school ranked. "Non-selective" was often a show-stopper; but the further up the rankings the school sat, the greater the chance someone might be hired at Google.

In these years, we were hiring Googlers all over the world, at huge volumes, so if the school had yet to be ranked, you would email it to the IHED overlord (a graduate of not one but two top universities!) and request a ranking. Twenty four hours of offline research would ensue. Then you'd nervously click on the reply, learn the ranking of the school -- and the fate of your candidate.

It was cringey at the time, and it is cringey now.

Google -- founded by two Stanford computer science PhD students -- was classically, um, efficient and data-driven in its approach. But the reality is that whether you attended university, and which university you attended, have long-played an outsized role in your ability to get a job.

Now though, we're starting to see cracks in the credential ceiling. And today, we zoom into them to explore the changes and to ask: Why now? What's driving the shift? What has to happen to turn tiny cracks into bigger ones? And what do we get if we pull it off? (Spoilers: a tight labor market; necessity; a ton of work; unfathomable economic and social upside).

🎯 Story #1 - Walmart, one of the biggest employers in the world, is dropping degree requirements for hundreds of its corporate jobs. What's causing them to do it? And who else is part of the trend? It's all in our first Story: ⬇️

🎯 Story #2 - Making a degree a non-requirement is all well and good, but it's just the start of a complex effort to hire and lead inclusively. A provocative piece of hiring advice prompts us to explore why we even place so much value on a degree in the first place. As well as the barriers to better team building, beyond edits to our job descriptions.

🎯 Story #3 - A gobsmacking study 😮 quantifies the magnitude of benefit we unlock -- for ourselves, others, our organizations, society at large -- when we stop asking, "Where did they go to school?". It's not just the amount of the gain, by the way; it's that the return is so within our reach. 🙌🏻

Thanks for reading and exploring with us -- and have a great end to your week!

Aki + Usman


#Skills>Credentials #Necessity #Inclusion #FirstStep

Take a guess: how many people does Walmart employ?

2.1 million people in its stores and offices around the world.

🤯 🤯 🤯

But the Arkansas-based company is no going to drop its university degree requirements from its corporate roles. Forbes explains:

The retail giant said Thursday it plans to rewrite hundreds of job descriptions so that for many of its corporate job titles, applicants can have either a college degree or show they have needed skills through prior experience or other types of learning.

Walmart is just the latest company to join a much broader trend in downplaying credentials:

The move adds one of the largest U.S. employers to the growing ranks of companies and institutions moving away from mandating college degrees for jobs in certain fields, such as cybersecurity, data analytics or operations.

Per LinkedIn, the number of job openings in the UK that didn't require a degree doubled between 2021 and 2022. Recruiters are also five times more likely to search candidates by skills versus by degree than they were at just the start of last year.

What's driving the sudden and pronounced change? Mostly, a tight labor market and demographic change. But it also reflects a desire to improve representation, and the beginning of a shift in focus from "jobs" to the content of work -- and the skills that underlie it:

Driven by a shortage of talent in high-demand areas, dwindling college enrollment amid increasing costs and corporate efforts to improve diversity numbers, “skills-based hiring” has become one of the hottest topics in corporate boardroom.
In the broader economy, “we’ve used degrees as proxies for skills that have, frankly, been weak proxies,” says Julie Gehrki, vice president of philanthropy for

It's all welcome news. But it's one thing to declare a degree a non-requirement, and another to acknowledge and address the more systemic challenges and biases that plague hiring and team-building:

Removing degree requirements is an important step for Walmart and other companies, but Maria Flynn says employers must take an “ecosystem” approach that also trains managers to not be biased against candidates or workers who don’t have degrees.

Our next story dives into why that training is so needed. 👇


#Potential>Experience #Bias #Safety #Efficiency #Status

Investor-entrepreneur Sam Altman (who founded ChatGPT maker OpenAI) offers a geeky take on how to hire, and look at life. Sam's advice? Don't fixate on where someone sits on a given ladder right now -- how senior they are, how experienced, their title, etc. Instead, try to get at their slope, or potential. Because potential will better determine how far they'll go over the long run.

It's a great piece of advice, and like dropping a degree requirement, it's more inclusive than mandating someone hold a minimum threshold of experience.

But it also begs the question: how do you hire for potential? And if you're willing to hire someone with less experience, but only if they've been to a top school, are we not back to exclusivity square one?

The challenge goes beyond minimizing external signals like credentials, to overcoming deeper-seated biases. Hiring is inherently risky, and biases often stem from a desire for safety and efficiency. I need to decide, quickly, whether to have someone join my team, without any guarantee of success. So I take the sign that you went to university like me -- or to my university -- as a sign of less risk.

Then there is good old status: hiring and team building is still an exercise in whom we "let in" to our organizations. And in that context, a degree, years of experience, brand name companies, job titles, all become markers of status. And our reliance on them, another reminder of how status-driven we remain.

So the challenges abound. But even if we set aside the moral arguments for doing the work to overcome them -- arguments like fairness and equity -- there is still good old-fashioned common sense. Dollars and cents. Our last Story helps us understand the massive economic boost of looking beyond a university degree, and hiring teams more inclusively.


#Inclusion #CommonSense #PaperCeiling

From the New York times:

As many as 30 million American workers without four-year college degrees have the skills to realistically move into new jobs that pay on average 70 percent more than their current ones. That estimate comes from a collaboration of academic, nonprofit and corporate researchers who mined data on occupations and skills.
The researchers published a broad look at the jobs, wages and skills of workers who have a high school diploma but not a four-year college degree as a working paper this year. They found a significant overlap between the skills required in jobs that pay low wages and many occupations with higher pay — a sizeable landscape of opportunity.

A "sizeable landscape of opportunity"? 🤣 Talk about an understatement.

Thirty million Americans with the potential to move into jobs that pay ~70% more salary. In a labor market defined by employers' inability to find enough talent! And, this untapped talent is not years of skills removed from being able to move into these roles. They often have the skills, or are mere months from rounding them out. For instance:

An office administrative assistant is a typical example of a low-paying job that can be a portal to a better one. The skills required include written and verbal communication, time management, problem solving, attention to detail and a fluency with office technology. In short, a skill set that is valuable in many jobs.

One such administrative assistant, Robert Johnson, worked in finance for 18 months, gaining his first office experience, and picking up collaboration and communication skills.

Then Mr. Johnson, 24, took a six-month nights and weekends programming course. Soon after he was hired by a local software company, where his annual salary is about $55,000, compared with $30,000 before.

Removing credentials is just step one. We need real stories, like this one. Not stories to feel good about ourselves; stories of companies that provide a path to apply, join, and thrive -- with or without a degree. 🚀

Thanks for reading. 🙏

Work moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
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