You've heard of the skills gap. Well there's another challenge facing employers who have middle-skills jobs to fill: the credentials gap.

For years, businesses have missed out on quality candidates. With a single sentence, they discouraged potentially great employees from even applying. Different companies phrase it in different ways: "Bachelor's degree required. Associate degree preferred. This position assumes a 4 year degree." Whichever way they said it, the message was the same, applicants without college degrees shouldn't even bother.

Now, the skills gap, plummeting unemployment, and a tight labor market mean it's time to rethink those old requirements, especially for middle-skills jobs. Companies can no longer afford to turn away enthusiastic, growth-minded employees just because they lack higher education credentials.

It's not just small businesses making the switch either, even industry leaders are deciding they'd rather hire for qualities and train employees their way.

How credentialism happened

In 2014, a report by Burning Glass Technologies documented the credentials gap -- the rate at which new hires for a given job were expected to have a college degree, compared to workers who had held that job for years and didn't have one.

At the time of the report, the problem was particularly pronounced among first-line supervisors of production and operating workers, with a 45% credentialing gap. Transportation, storage and distribution managers saw a 4% gap. Smaller, but still significant gaps appeared for first-line supervisors of mechanics, installers, repairers (34%) and construction workers (21%).  

Outside the trades, other middle-skills jobs were suffering as well. Computer user support specialists had a 21% gap and human resources assistants had a 22% gap.

Some experts blame the 2008 recession for credential creep. At the time, unemployed college graduates were willing to take jobs they otherwise wouldn't have considered - jobs that were outside their area of study and paid much less than they wanted. College degrees became a convenient way to weed through applications.

Then, as the job market rebounded, those requirements stayed in place. In some cases, the skills required to do the job actually have changed over time. New technology demands new skills. However, they aren't necessarily the same skills that college teaches.

In fact, many employers admit that they don't think college prepares students for the workplace. In a National Association of Colleges and Employers survey only 42.5% of employers thought recent grads were proficient in professionalism and work ethic. Only 41.6% said they were proficient in communication, and just over half (55.8%) said graduates were proficient in critical thinking and problem solving.

If a college degree doesn't indicate that an applicant has specific skills, why are employers still using it as a qualification for employment? Perhaps they see it as an indicator that the person has certain qualities. Employers may be assuming that a college degree proves the applicant has determination and dedication.

Assuming this is true, it still discounts all of those potential applicants who have focused their determination, dedication and work ethic on finding and keeping a job, raising healthy families, and serving their country or community. A college degree may be an indicator of particular qualities, but it's not the only indicator.

Opening the door to quality candidates

Forbes, the Harvard Business Review and other publications that have been calling for businesses to stop focusing on college degrees since at least 2013. It seems that industry-leaders are finally heeding the call. Big-name companies in almost every industry are dropping degree requirements. Penguin Random House, Hilton and Bank of America are all posting middle-skills jobs with no degree required.

The trend is particularly prevalent in the tech industry, according a to a TechRepublic CIO Jury survey. Nine out of 12 respondents said they looked at skills over degrees. The leaders who responded said bootcamps and other certification programs might just be more valuable than a college degree. Google, Apple and IBM all seem to agree. They've also dropped degree requirements.

Job postings requiring a college degree fell to 30% in the first half of 2018, the Wall Street Journal reported. That's down from 32% the previous year.

That's not to say that companies are ignoring college degrees all together -- having one can still make a good candidate seem even better -- but the new trend means that businesses have a wider pool of candidates to choose from.


What to look for instead

If you can't spot a quality candidate based on whether or not they have a college degree, how can you tell someone is a good fit for the position?

Rather than fixating on credentials, you can examine experience, skills and qualities. In a sense, you're looking not at how valuable the candidate currently is, but at how valuable they have the potential to become. You want a candidate who is excited to grow with your business and will fit in with your company culture.

The ideal candidate has three qualities: Desire to learn, persistence, and personal responsibility. With these qualities, a candidate is able to grow into their job even if they aren't experts on day one.

Candidates with a desire to learn will ask lots of questions, have outside interests and listen attentively during interviews. Their resumes might include work outside the industry or unexpected trainings and certifications.

Persistent candidates will keep working at a task until it's complete, whether that task is meeting a production goal or learning a new technology. Ask applicants about times they overcame a challenge and what achievements they're particularly proud of to get a sense of their level of persistence.

Candidates with personal responsibility focus on improving themselves. They don't blame other people or outside circumstances when things go wrong. Instead they focus on their own behavior and what they can do to solve the problem.

These three qualities indicate that an applicant is trainable. Even if they don't have the skills you need right now, they will be willing to learn, keep working at it until they've mastered it, and stay on the lookout for ways to improve.

Train your way

When you hire trainable employees instead of credentialed candidates, you get the opportunity to train them your way. You can create customized training plans for each employee or build curriculums for different job titles.

Apprenticeship programs - All kinds of industries are embracing apprenticeship programs as a customized training solution. Apprentices can start being productive on day one and build their skills as they go. Many apprenticeship programs include a combination of classwork and on-the-job training.

Microcredentials - Some new hires just need to brush up on a few key skills. Microcredentials are targeted training options that let each employee focus on the specific skills they need to succeed. They can be delivered through online learning modules accessible over the internet, so employees can watch a training while waiting for the bus or learn something new during their lunch break.

Tuition Assistance - If an employee does need a college degree or more complex certification, you can help make that possible with a tuition assistance program. You get a qualified employee and they feel valued and supported by you, their employer. Everybody wins.

How to Get Started

Penn Foster can help train employees your way. Contact us today to start building a unique training and development plan for your new hires.

Recommended for You: Forget Skill Sets: Why You Should Hire for Character Instead 

Photo credit 1photo credit 2