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Why Practical Skills Will Matter More Than Your Degree In The New Economy

But the transition away from traditional credentials faces strong headwinds for now.

Why Practical Skills Will Matter More Than Your Degree In The New Economy
[Photo: Charles Deluvio/Unsplash]

When Giancarlo Martinez applied a few years ago to be a web developer at Genome, a digital marketing firm in New York, he was confident that he had the ability. But he couldn’t help but wonder whether company recruiters would be able to recognize his chops—and even if they did, he worried that they still might not give him a chance.

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The reason: Although he had gone to coding school, Martinez was largely self-taught—”Staying up until 6 a.m., Googling things, and just figuring it out.” Others angling to work at Genome, he presumed, “probably had master’s degrees in computer science.”

“I was very intimidated,” recalls Martinez, now 26.

But Genome was welcoming. “At the end of the day, it’s not the piece of paper on your wall,” says Stephanie Plumeri Ertz, who interviewed Martinez for the position. “It’s what you can turn out.”

To seal the deal, she gave Martinez a test, asking him to follow a set of technical specifications while designing a webpage featuring cupcakes. Martinez showed a solid command of the basics. He also added a few impressive flourishes, including an animation of a conveyer belt that churned out cupcakes heaped with frosting, which tumbled off the end of the assembly line and dropped into the mouth of a cute, if voracious, blue robot.

“The coding challenge became my golden ticket,” says Martinez, who was immediately brought on for $70,000 a year—a huge bump from the $40,000 or so he’d been scratching together through a string of less stable tech jobs and freelance gigs.

Among the big questions now confronting the U.S. labor market is this: How common will stories like Martinez’s become?

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Given the passion with which some business and educational leaders talk about it, you might well imagine that we’re on the cusp of a major revolution.

[Photo: courtesy of IBM]

Skills, Not Degrees

“Getting a job at today’s IBM does not always require a college degree,” the company’s CEO, Ginni Rometty, has asserted. “What matters most is relevant skills.” Jeff Weiner, the CEO of LinkedIn, has been pushing the same message at his company. And David Blake, cofounder of the learning platform Degreed, has put it like this: “It shouldn’t matter how you picked up your skills, just that you did.”

But others are decidedly cautious, noting that longstanding cultural norms and institutional inertia stand as powerful roadblocks to this new way of thinking. Some experts are particularly skeptical that a skills-oriented approach to learning and hiring can transcend the tech industry.

“We’re in the early innings of this transition,” says Mike Adams, cofounder and chief product officer of MissionU, which offers an educational alternative to a traditional degree by focusing on skill building and job placement. Indeed, he anticipates that it will take “decades to shift” to an environment in which capability trumps academic pedigree on a wide scale.

The situation is evolving—but “not fast enough,” adds Karan Chopra, executive vice president of Opportunity@Work, a social enterprise whose signature program, TechHire, has enabled thousands of Americans from underserved communities to access training and jobs. (Among them is Martinez, a native of the South Bronx, who was supported by the NYC Tech Talent Pipeline, a part of the TechHire network, to help pay for a six-month stint at Flatiron School so that he could polish his coding skills before auditioning at Genome.)

“It’s important to realize that this is a problem of collective action,” Chopra says. “Individual employers changing their hiring practices one at a time won’t work—or won’t work quickly enough. A critical mass of employers needs to shift behavior, signaling to the rest and influencing a change in the way the market operates today.”

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To be clear, no one who is advocating for a skills-centered system is suggesting that learning isn’t essential. In fact, the idea is that ever more of us must engage in lifelong learning as automation and other technological advances render our skills obsolete. Having only a high school diploma is not sufficient to land and hold a job anymore.

The goal, then, is to make all kinds of courses readily available in physical classrooms and virtual settings alike, allowing folks to acquire know-how that’s useful in the real world and then demonstrate their prowess to employers.

Under this scenario, it is envisioned, many will still obtain four-year degrees. Many others will earn two-year degrees or technical certificates. Meanwhile, the continued emergence of even more affordable options—such as online badging regimes, which can signal when someone has completed an area of study and mastered a discrete skill—will enhance the job prospects of those currently being left behind.

A False Choice

“Making it skills versus credentials is a bit of a false choice,” says Beth Cobert, CEO of Skillful, an initiative of the Markle Foundation that, in partnership with Microsoft, is aiming to give educators a sharper picture of which skills are in demand in their region while helping businesses adopt skills-based hiring and training practices. “This is about changing mind-sets.”

The difficulty in doing so is that the vast majority of businesses and individuals are largely locked in their old ways.

Despite employers’ constant gripes that they can’t find enough qualified workers in a host of industries, many are screening out those who lack a bachelor’s degree—even though they could tackle the tasks at hand without one. “An increasing number of job seekers face being shut out of middle-skill, middle-class occupations” because of this phenomenon, Burning Glass Technologies, a provider of labor market analytics, warned this month. “This credential inflation . . . is affecting a wide range of jobs from executive assistants to construction supervisors.”

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For many families—and the battery of institutions of higher education eager to win them over—there’s also little interest in reconceiving how to best prepare their kids for what lies ahead. “People still build their identity around being a four-year college graduate,” says MissionU’s Adams. “That has a pretty strong stranglehold on society,” even amid deep concern about swelling student loan debt.

Martinez felt that tug himself. His stepdad didn’t approve of him skipping college. And his mom, who is from the Dominican Republic, also had misgivings at first. “As an immigrant mother, she always expected me to have a degree,” he says.

Another issue is how hard it can be to exhibit one’s skills outside of tech. If a company is looking for a Python developer with a certain level of experience and competence, “it doesn’t matter whether you come from high school or come from a PhD” program, says Spencer Thompson, the founder of Sokanu, a career-matching platform. “If you can prove those things, that’s great.” But suppose someone wants to be a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning technician?

“How do you measure whether a person is a good HVAC installer?” Thompson asks. “What are the . . . atomic units of being an installer, and how do you actually measure whether somebody is good or bad at those things? That’s where the whole model just completely breaks down.”

The Skills Embedded In The Study Of Literature

Even tougher to see, perhaps, is how the liberal arts can fit in. But Cobert proposes that—beyond having considerable value in their own right—such subjects might be radically reconsidered to capture what employers find most meaningful. “When you take Victorian literature,” she says, “we do not break it down to show that you learned writing skills, you learned critical thinking, you learned how to respond to feedback.”

Others also are hopeful that new avenues for highlighting skills are starting to open up, not necessarily as a replacement for formal education but as a companion to it.

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“I don’t think it’s about tech at all,” says Connie Yowell, the CEO of Collective Shift, a nonprofit whose platform, LRNG, teaches tangible skills to young people, gives digitals badges (sometimes called “microcredentials”) to track their achievements, and uses these markers to unlock academic credit, internships, and jobs. “This is the future of learning.”

Adams, of MissionU, is somewhere in between. He believes that tech is a sweet spot. That’s why the first two cohorts completing his program—about 50 people in all—are concentrating on learning data analytics and amassing a portfolio of work to share with potential employers.

Yet MissionU, unlike many tech boot camps, also teaches general business skills, in part through a self-paced project in which students research a topic and present the findings in Excel. This can offer concrete “evidence that you can solve problems” inside a company, Adams says—and, sure enough, employers have begun to regard this assignment as a good indicator of fundamental business proficiency. Because of it, Adams foresees some MissionU graduates finding their way into human resources and other functions, not just being data geeks.

As for Martinez, he has done well for himself. After leaving Genome, he went to work at Yashi, a video advertising company. Once again, he found a boss who admired his skills and didn’t care about his schooling. “It’s not about the path you’ve taken, but what you bring to the table,” says Dipak Shetty, who hired Martinez.

Recently, Martinez moved from New York to Austin, Texas, where he’s mulling what to do next. He may take another job in software. Or he may attempt to shift into a broader management role. For that, though, he acknowledges that he will be forced to finally get a university education, maybe even an MBA.

“If I were to pursue a business job,” he says, “I definitely need a degree to compete.”

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After all, skills are everything. But for all too many employers, credentials remain the only thing.

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About the author

Rick Wartzman is director of the KH Moon Center for a Functioning Society at the Drucker Institute and the author of four books, including his latest, The End of Loyalty: The Rise and Fall of Good Jobs in America. He also hosts The Bottom Line, a podcast on the intersection of business and society.

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