White and red chairs in a line.

Requiring job applicants to have college degrees might be artificially constricting your talent pipeline. Thousands of competent employees have never earned a college degree. By adjusting job posting requirements, you can tap into a broader talent pool to fill gaps in your workforce, then train them to meet the demands of the job.

Barriers to talent development

Ten years ago, employers could afford to use a college degree as a prerequisite for employment. After the 2008 recession, new graduates were desperate for jobs. The job market was wide open and there were plenty of candidates. But circumstances have changed.

The cost of college has far outpaced the speed of inflation over the last three decades. In 1985 a student could pay for a year of education at a public university for just $8,604. That’s the equivalent of $3,859 today. By contrast, in 2015, a student at the same institution would need $19,488. That’s about five times more expensive. Working your way through college by holding a minimum wage job while enrolled, was once a viable strategy. Today it’s a much more difficult proposition.

In 47 of the 50 U.S. states, low-income students need to work more than 15 hours per week to pay the net price at a public four-year college, according to an Education Trust study. That’s after Title IV aid, grants and scholarships have defrayed the cost. Circumstances are even worse for students in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, where they would have to work more than 40 hours per week to pay for college with their minimum wage paycheck.

Public institutions are seen as the affordable option, but they aren’t really within reach for all students without hefty student loans. Learners from low-income backgrounds may already have high debt, making student loans an impractical solution.

In short, the idea that a person can work their way through college, is largely a myth in the modern world. Meanwhile, the job market has tightened, and the unemployment rate is at a 50-year low. Employers can no longer afford to raise restrictive barriers to employment.

What this means for employers

Low income students, as defined by Education Trust, are those from families earning $30,000 or less per year. About 30% of America’s 118.8 million households fit this definition. If even a fraction of low income students have not yet earned a college degree, that could mean any business insisting on degrees as a qualification for employment is missing out on hundreds of thousands of potential candidates. Since about two-thirds of U.S. adults have less than a college degree, it’s likely that some percentage of the low-income group lack college degrees.

A study by BurningGlass Technologies identified a dozen industries in which the demand for workers exceeds supply. Healthcare practitioners have the largest gap at 44%, but tech jobs, maintenance work, and administrative support all made the list as well. While the cost of vacancy depends on the position, there’s no doubt that unfilled positions cost businesses revenue.

To close these gaps, businesses must change their approach to hiring and development. They can start by searching for job seekers whose skills may be a great fit, except that they haven’t yet earned a college degree.

What businesses can do

Ed Trust made recommendations for how policymakers can make college more affordable. But waiting for legislative change could take years, if it happens at all. Businesses are positioned to make real, immediate change by adjusting their hiring policies. Instead of fixating on degrees, they could hire curious, motivated people, and give them the tools to learn while they earn.

Here are three ways employers can reach non-degreed job seekers:

  1. Adjust HR policies to allow the hiring of applicants without degrees - If your business has a documented policy requiring degrees, start the process of adjusting the policy. This change doesn’t mean you have to hire someone without a degree. It just gives you the option to do so if the right candidate appears.
  2. Investigate whether degrees are really needed for the job - In many cases, job postings are written once and then recycled whenever there’s a vacancy. Your business may have used degrees to filter candidates when the job market was more robust. That’s no longer the case, so it’s time to rethink those expectations. Consider whether a degree is really essential to the position, or whether it’s serving as a placeholder for a combination of skills. If an employee really does need a degree, do they need it on day one? Would they be able to do the job while earning their degree at the same time?
  3. Offer tuition assistance or reimbursement - If you prefer employees to have college degrees, put that credential within reach with tuition assistance or reimbursement benefits. Not only will these benefits help you upskill non-degreed employees, they also help attract curious, driven people who want to improve their skills.

This simple policy shift leads to both short-term and long-term payoffs for your business. In the short term, you gain a broader range of applicants from which to choose, making your talent pipeline more robust. In the longer term, you gain educated employees, who are likely to stay loyal to the company that helped them get their degree.

You don’t have to develop talent on your own. Penn Foster has the courses, tools, and support systems to help your working learners succeed both professionally and academically. Contact a Penn Foster training expert today, to start developing your workforce.