Voices from Accenture Public Service

Work experience preferred in theory; four-year degree required in practice

The educational journey is about more than post-graduation career outcomes, but for higher education institutions, having their alumni graduate into the workforce fully prepared is a key priority.  

However, some institutions are leading the way in educating students for middle-skills careers, but they are still finding it hard to break into the job market. Why? Well employers hiring for middle-skills jobs, those traditionally requiring more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree, are increasingly demanding applicants hold a bachelor’s degree. Meaning it is harder for middle-skills job-seekers to start their careers. 

New research published by Harvard Business School, Grads of Life, and Accenture found that as many as 6.2 million postings for U.S. middle-skills jobs are subject to “degree inflation,” – they now want a college degree as a minimum education requirement. However, when employers filter out applicants without a college degree, they overlook two-thirds of working-age adults – often with market-ready skills, making these jobs harder to fill. The report shows, in 12 out of the 15 occupations where the degree gap is largest, it consistently takes more time to fill the position when the job posting includes the requirement for a college degree. 

Surveyed employers were asked which hard and soft skills were missing in applicants that prompted them to raise the education requirements for these jobs. For hard-to-fill jobs, employers are often looking for a very specific digital skill, such as proficiency in Microsoft Excel, SQL, Oracle, or Java. Out of all the skills described as missing in middle-skills applicants, the most popular category was “Digital/Software” including the “understanding of new technologies.” However, acquiring these new skills often does not require a four-year degree, and many college graduates do not even have these skills. 

Interestingly evidence indicates that actual work experience is more important to employers than the diploma itself. When asked to rank the most important credentials and qualifications for middle-skills job applicants, 37 percent of employers said relevant work experience is most important, and 40 percent ranked a four-year degree as the least important factor.  

But practice, 3 in 5 employers surveyed still filter out applicants without four-year degrees who are otherwise qualified, even though the applicants with four-year degrees demand higher pay and have lower retention rates.  

The reality is employers need more candidates with specific skills, so educators need to adapt quickly to ensure their graduates have the best chance at success.  

My next post will highlight ways that educators and employers can partner to combat degree inflation by designing work-based learning and apprenticeship programs. 

How is your institution putting more focus on Skill-Based Education? Leave a comment or send me a direct mail, let’s talk about it. More Education content can be found our content hub or check out my other blogs.    

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