The value of a four-year college degree hasn’t been so hotly disputed at any other time in living memory. Nontraditional educational paths are gaining acceptance in certain parts of the workforce as companies look for new ways to fill the middle-skills jobs gap. And since the costs of higher education don’t appear to be coming down any time soon, businesses have more motivation than ever to start taking the expanding array of other training programs more seriously.
The fact is that limiting your recruitment strategy to conventional qualifications might risk surrendering your competitive edge. Here’s why some candidates who don’t have four-year degrees might have a leg up on those that do.
In a 2014 survey by CareerBuilder, employers were asked to identify the soft skills they prize most among candidates. The number-one trait was a strong work ethic, with 73% of respondents saying it was important. Being a self-starter was also a top priority, with 66% of employers putting it at the top of their lists.
And while we’re apt to think of college grads as independent, self-motivated workers, they’re far from the only ones who are. Those who hold associate degrees or other certifications are just as likely to have a similar drive, and in some cases a four-year degree is even a red herring for the work ethic recruiters assume it represents.
The statistics paint a more complicated picture. One recent study, by the National Student Clearinghouse, found that only 39% of college enrollees had completed their degrees within six years. However, students who were part-time or mixed enrollment–presumably due to work, family, or other life obligations–made up a significant proportion of these graduates; approximately 19% of part-time students and 36% of mixed enrollment students succeeded in achieving their goal.
Those numbers are low. And while it’s likely true that those who do succeed must have incredible self-motivation, the fact that so few complete four-year programs even in six years points to the enormously high barriers many hard-working students face when it comes to that traditional model. Their skills shouldn’t be ignored by forward-thinking employers.
When assessing the soft skills of a candidate, prioritize the ones that matter to the position, not to some conventional notion of what a pedigreed employee looks like. Take the time to consider how candidates with less formal educational backgrounds can bring their experiences to the table.
Learning skills in the classroom is different than applying them in the real world. In a study this year by the American Association of Colleges and Universities, 59% of college students said they feel prepared to apply what they’ve learned to real-world situations. But only 23% of employers agreed with them.
The college campus tends to be a bubble that keeps its students from having to fully immerse in the real world for an extended period of time. That’s partly the point. Many colleges argue persuasively that they aren’t in the business simply of training the next generation of workers. And the knowledge gained in strictly education-based environments can prove tremendously important in the workforce. All the same, college graduates still need time to translate those skills once they enter it.
College, in general, is consistently shown to lead to higher wages and better jobs. For many, that’s argument enough for young adults to attend college. But it increasingly isn’t always a good argument, and it’s one that employers are perpetuating anyway–potentially to their own detriment.
The fact is that employers have different needs than students, and the default prestige factor a degree confers doesn’t always serve companies very well. After all, who would you rather hire: Someone without a degree who has four years of relevant work experience and good references, or someone who’s just graduated from a four-year university with a political science degree and no work experience? Recruiters, HR professionals, and hiring managers are rethinking their answers to questions like that one each day.
Online education is undergoing a bit of a shake-up, and in many cases it’s overdue. Certain for-profit colleges have been charged with over-promising and under-delivering (or worse) and shut down in recent years. That’s been making headlines. Others, on the other hand, are thriving–and for good reason. Now, even prestigious universities are going digital in order to meet demand for more flexible, remote educational opportunities, like 2U Harvard Business School’s new HBX program, for instance.
The benefits of a college education are still clear. But it’s worth recognizing that great alternative education options can prepare potential employees for success. There’s simply now an unprecedented variety of ways to develop a career path. The online education company Udacity is touting “nanodegrees” as solutions for the next generation of tech workers. Companies like General Assembly are offering training in a range of work-related fields offline. And my own career exploration startup PathSource is teaming up with the GED Testing Service to expand the range of tools and resources students have access to when it comes to shaping their careers.
All these options–and a slew of others now out there–help students make more informed decisions about the opportunities they go after and improve the ways they position themselves for those jobs.
It’s not clear what the traditional career path will look like in a decade. But the foundation is shifting. It’s up to employers to prepare for and even hasten that shift starting today, so they’re positioned to attract the best and brightest employees that arrive on their doorsteps tomorrow–no matter how they get there.
Aaron Michel is the cofounder and CEO at PathSource, a career exploration solution helping students and job seekers make better career choices.