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For a more equitable recovery, corporations must stop using a college degree as a proxy for ability

Training programs and new recruitment strategies can help advance racial justice for Black Americans.

For a more equitable recovery, corporations must stop using a college degree as a proxy for ability
[Source photo: Moussa81/iStock]
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With COVID-19 vaccine distribution in progress, many economists are cautiously optimistic that a slow economic recovery is on its way. But we can’t afford to make the same mistakes that were made after the Great Recession of 2008, when the recovery largely overlooked Black talent—particularly individuals without four-year college degrees.

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For the American economy to prosper, we need to guarantee opportunities for those who have been systematically left out and left behind, and it’s up to corporate America to live up to its promises to support racial justice reforms. Following the murder of George Floyd and the nationwide protests it inspired against systemic racism, we’ve seen many companies make noteworthy commitments—from donations to CEO-led coalitions like OneTen and the World Economic Forum’s Partnering for Racial Justice in Business initiative.

But there’s another solution businesses can implement today to support racial equity: address degree inflation in their employment practices. By requiring a bachelor’s degree for jobs that don’t require that level of education experience, employers automatically exclude 76% of Black Americans.

A study from Harvard Business School and the nonprofit Grads of Life revealed that during the Great Recession of 2008, 75% of jobs lost were those held by workers with a high school diploma or less—yet 75% of the 11.6 million jobs created in the recovery required at least a bachelor’s degree. This only exacerbated an economic landscape built to benefit the few and deny opportunity to the many.

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In the past year, several companies, including Google and IBM, have removed degree requirements from middle-skills roles. But too many corporations still limit their recruiting efforts for such positions to four-year colleges. I challenge corporate America to take a hard look at not just their job postings, but their talent recruitment strategies. It’s time for corporate America to see that promising talent is not solely a product of college campuses.

If we’re to build a more equitable economic recovery in the coming months, employers must change their talent practices, starting with these three actions:

  1. Review job descriptions—both for existing and new roles—to mitigate degree inflation. Look over the requirements in your job descriptions, particularly those that require four-year degrees, and determine if they’re truly necessary. If the hard skills needed for the job could be attained via a credential or other training program, or if the four-year-degree requirement is serving as a proxy to assess a candidate’s professionalism, consider removing it.
  2. Build intentional talent pipelines from the community, with a focus on skills and attitudes. Find organizations in your community that train people for careers. Nonprofits, community colleges, and government entities often train people in the hard skills needed for a job, as well as the professional skills and attitudes needed to succeed in a corporate environment. Establishing intentional pipelines from these non-university sources will help you sustain inclusive recruiting practices and find talent with the skills you need.
  3. Understand that hiring practices are only the beginning. Diversity without inclusion is not enough. Ensure that every person you hire into your company has opportunities for skill development, professional networking, and advancement. Consider establishing mentoring programs for early-career employees, offering tuition assistance so that workers without four-year degrees can work toward them, and making sure that your internal career path opportunities are clearly defined and articulated for all to pursue.

What does this look like in practice?

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In 2018, through partnerships with Year Up and similar organizations, Bank of America pledged to hire 10,000 employees from low- to moderate-income communities by 2023 through its Pathways program, a goal that was exceeded two years ahead of schedule. Pathways is just one of the ways that Bank of America is helping to create a stronger hiring pipeline within the communities it serves, as the company remains steadfast in its commitment to advancing racial equality and economic mobility.

Monica Packnett, a young Black woman from Chicago, is one of the individuals who helped redefine what talent looks like and where it comes from at Bank of America. Having to leave college during her second year due to tuition costs, Packnett enrolled in Year Up Chicago and during her program internship was assigned to the Bank of America Private Bank. She then relocated to Dallas and was offered a full-time position at the bank in 2017 as a Private Bank portfolio management assistant. Currently a portfolio manager associate based in Atlanta, Packnett shared: “I’ve gained a much deeper experience than if college and work opportunities were simply handed to me. I had to create my own picture of success.”

Packnett’s story is only one example of the difference that can be made when Black Americans are provided equal access to quality jobs. It’s the single most important action companies can take to advance racial justice.

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Exclusionary practices like degree requirements hinder economic growth and set back racial justice efforts. Our nation can’t afford to make the same mistakes that we did coming out of the Great Recession. With the right intention and leadership, we can create a new economic reality that expands access to the middle class, while fueling businesses with the diverse talent they need.

Gerald Chertavian is founder and CEO of Year Up, a nonprofit organization that empowers young adults to move from minimum wage to meaningful careers.