Why dropping degrees could improve diversity

Hiring statistics reveal that HR still has work to do to improve DEI. But changes to hiring, to focus more on skills and less on academic credentials, could hold the solution.

Article main image
Oct 30, 2023

As most HR professionals will know by now, the Supreme Court’s recent ruling against affirmative action – a move which forbids universities to improve their diversity metrics by specifically selecting under-represented groups – is having a huge destabilizing impact on corporates too.

In a single swoop, levers they might have been able to pull to boost numbers of under-represented groups (such as requiring female-only shortlists), is on decidedly rocky ground, with push-back now being observed on many DEIB programs – ironically labeling them as discriminatory.

Many commentators fear the a fear-driven abandonment of effective DEIB practices.

So what are organizations legitimately able to do to ensure they can improve diversity – and do it without being branded as encouraging positive discrimination?

One approach is to drop the requirement for degrees.

The tyranny of degree-level job requirements

It was almost a decade ago, in a famous McKinsey report, that the benefits of workplace diversity were popularized. But lack of diversity still exists partly because of one of the key points it made: an insistence companies still have for degree-level education.

Employers do it for obvious reasons – they want well-rounded individuals with a knowledge-base appropriate for the level of job they want candidates to go into.

But the fact remains that according to US census data. simply adding a four-year degree requirement will automatically screen out 76% of African Americans and 83% of LatinX workers.

However, as we also know, even when minority candidates are part of the recruitment process, unconscious bias can still negatively influence their opportunities for success.

For instance, research in the Journal of Leadership Studies found that HR managers looking to fill a position in a male-dominated industry tend to be more skeptical of female candidates, and sometimes do not even consider them at all.

Elsewhere, studies in The Journal of Social Issues have demonstrated how people of color are more likely to be perceived as less skilled or more inefficient.

As Erica Price Burns, a senior vice president and co-director of Research at Whiteboard Advisors notes: “Even with the best intentions, human nature makes hiring based on resumes and interviews over-reliant on educational background, employment background or personal characteristics.”

As Research from LinkedIn also reveals, 88% of recruiters admit they are filtering out candidates purely because they do not possess specific job titles or qualifications.

Enter skills-based recruitment

So what needs to be done?

There are a variety of steps that can be taken to reduce the likelihood of unconscious bias in the hiring process, such as blind hiring and raising employee awareness of hiring bias.

But these efforts do not also solve the issue of employers struggling to identify candidates from more diverse backgrounds.

However, skills-based hiring can offer a solution.

How skills-based hiring drives workplace diversity

“Skills-based hiring enables businesses to identify and prioritize the skills that candidates require to be successful in specific roles, rather than focusing on credentials, previous job titles, academic achievements and so on,” says Nick Shaw, co-founder of skills-based workforce management platform vendor Spotted Zebra.

“HR teams can then align applicants that possess appropriate skills (or demonstrate the capability to quickly learn these skills) with roles. The result of this is happier, more productive employees.”

Crucially, skills-based hiring also means that any preconceived ideas of what the perfect candidate looks like are disregarded to focus on just the skills.

The end results should be that by removing job history or education requirements (such as degrees), businesses can access a much broader pool of talent, including talent that is traditionally underrepresented.

Skills-based hiring also means that all candidates are considered equally as long as they have the skills or the capability to easily learn the skills.

“Studies on job descriptions looking for biased wording have consistently proven to deter people of a certain age, ethnicity, educational attainment, social status, disability and gender,” says Perry Timms, founder of People and Transformational HR (PTHR).

He adds: “As a result. HR professionals are ruling out potentially the best candidates because of this – something we’ll never know or be able to track. By comparison, skills-based recruitment is a much more likely frame of reference for people to apply without feeling deterred by subtle biases in job specs.”

It really works:

Even though employers might be worried that candidates have not reached an academic level that they desire, evidence has proven the impact skills-based hiring has on diversity.

Research from LinkedIn suggests that skills-based hiring increases the proportion of women in the talent pool by 24% more than it would for men in jobs where women are under-represented.

For example, in Germany, the role of engineering team lead has 14% representation of women in the job-title pool, but has 35% representation in the skills-first pool.

If companies were to hire for this role using a skills-first approach, the overall talent pool of women increases by 10 times, compared to a three times increase for men.

Becky Schnauffer, head of global clients at LinkedIn Talent Solutions says: “The labor market has historically been inequitable and opaque. Our data shows that a skills-first approach can help level the playing field for workers who may have been overlooked, including women, workers without bachelor’s degrees, and younger people.”

Bain has also reported how a focus on skills is leading to the recruitment of the best and most diverse talent.

It highlights the skill-based work of IBM, which removed degree requirements for half of its US jobs and as a result has seen consistent increases in diverse and underrepresented talent.

Bain concludes that by prioritizing skills over academic credentials or pedigree, companies are better able to recruit people with different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives.

It adds: “While skills-based hiring alone does not guarantee diversity, it is a necessary first step in breaking down potential barriers and creating a more inclusive organisation.”

Indeed, for those committed to improving DEI, it’s difficult to overlook just how important a skills-based approach to hiring could be to drive genuine and permanent change.

PS…What the data says:

Recent research by job search engine Adzuna analyzed jobs offering salaries greater than $200,000 to jobseekers – and it found the vast majority are no longer requiring a degree.

It found:

  • Nearly 90% of job ads paying more than $200,oo0 do not have any degree requirements. Only 9.5% make any mention of applicants needing to have a degree.
  • Looking at the top 10 soft skills cited within job ads offering over $200K, “energetic” is the most-cited soft skill, found in 23.5% of job ads for roles with high paying salaries. This is followed by “communication” (12.2%), “planning” (6.4%), and “leadership” (6.3%)
  • The Legal sector had the highest proportion of jobs (4.3%) with salaries over $200K, advertising 165 vacancies in this salary range. This was followed by IT (3.2%) with 503 vacancies in this salary range. Logistics & Warehouse (3%) and Travel (1.9%

James Neave, head of data science at Adzuna, says: “The data indicates that skills, rather than degrees, are the top requirement candidates must have to secure a ‘high-paying job’ today – or a salary over $200,000. Skills continue to stand out as competitive differentiators.”

Top Sectors with Jobs Paying Over $200K



Total Jobs with Advertised Salary Over $200KTotal Job Postings with Salary InfoProportion of Jobs with a Salary Over $200K
Logistics & Warehouse5,849194,6883.0%
Scientific & QA703,9121.8%
PR, Advertising & Marketing332,3331.4%
Accounting & Finance28520,4291.4%
HR & Recruitment433,5591.2%
Healthcare & Nursing87891,1181.0%
Energy, Oil & Gas103,1340.3%
Trade & Construction12339,3920.3%
Creative & Design21,7660.1%
Domestic help & Cleaning35,7730.1%
Social work36,8310.0%
Customer Services511,4250.0%
Hospitality & Catering1034,7640.0%

Table 2: Top 10 Soft Skills Cited in Jobs Ads Paying Over $200K

Skill NameNumber of Job Ads Over $200K Citing Skill Proportion of Job Ads Over $200K Citing Skill
Customer Service5305.0%
Problem Solving2832.7%

Table 2: Top 10 Hard Skills Cited in Jobs Ads Over $200K

Skill NameNumber of Job Ads Over $200K Citing Skill Proportion of Job Ads Over $200K Citing Skill
Project Management2092.0%