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The employers who can’t seem to fill the United States’s roughly 6 million vacant jobs are at a loss for what to do. Qualified candidates are seemingly nowhere to be found. In Washington, D.C., for example, there aren’t enough workers who have the healthcare-management or sales skills to meet the demands of the hospitals and retail stores and banks desperate to hire, according to a report by LinkedIn’s Economic Graph Team. Philadelphia has so many job openings that can’t be filled because its residents lack skills in areas including politics and retail.
Policymakers such as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos say the solution is to recognize the range of avenues by which someone can become “qualified” for a given job. Nontraditional forms of education, such as apprenticeships—in which students can participate in on-the-job training while earning subsidized salaries—are gaining support among Republicans and Democrats alike. "We need to stop forcing kids into believing a traditional four-year degree is the only pathway to success," Devos said in November at the inaugural meeting of the White House Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion. "We need to start treating students as individuals ... not boxing them in." But such rhetoric seems to overlook the countless employers that won’t change their hiring criteria because they don’t view nontraditional education as credible.
Companies hiring for what would traditionally be classified as middle-skill positions (those that economists define as requiring a high-school diploma but not a bachelor’s degree, such as bookkeeping or a secretary) today often say they require candidates to have a bachelor’s degree. They see such degrees as an indication of whether an applicant has a range of skills they’re looking for, like the ability to communicate effectively or program computers. In 2015, almost 70 percent of job postings for production supervisors (people who oversee the production operations in manufacturing or other industrial environments), for example, asked for a bachelor’s degree even though only 16 percent of the workers already employed in that occupation had one, according to a report by the Harvard Business School. The report estimates that more than 6 million jobs——interestingly, the same number as those that are vacant— are at risk of degree inflation.
These discrepancies aren’t the result of an imbalance in ability but rather an imbalance in access. And that ought to call into question companies’ ever-growing reliance on a bachelor’s degree as a barometer of one’s eligibility for a given job. Instead of considering whether a candidate has a four-year degree, the employer should be asking, “who can do this job today and continue learning to become a productive member of the team?” said Beth Cobert, the CEO of Skillful. Skillful, a recently launched Colorado-based organization, aims to change the way companies hire by working with employers, job seekers, educators, coaches, and the government, among others, to shift their focus during the job-screening process from degrees to skills. The goal is to have employers look at applicants’ competencies—say, their ability to communicate effectively with customers and compile an Excel spreadsheet—rather than just their degrees when screening candidates.