The degree has long been the centerpiece of higher education. The bachelor’s degree has built up such a reputation for excellence that many employers have used it as a proxy for skills in hiring. It has been assumed that if a person holds a bachelor’s degree, they’re competent in the technical and social skills that employers seek.
However, with the current shortage of workers, employers are rethinking the essential criteria for hiring. And increasingly, they’re relaxing rigid degree requirements to broaden their talent pools. Indeed, even in the 2022 State of the Union address, President Biden touched on the importance of hiring on skills.
Now that “skills-based hiring” is on the rise, what does that mean for the degree?
A recent report, The Emerging Degree Reset, dived deeper into this topic to explore what jobs and occupations are changing, and how this impacts how job postings list the skills needed for different jobs. The report found that, in the occupations studied, there are both cyclical changes (based on the immediate needs of the job market) and structural changes (likely to to be lasting) in how employers are requiring degrees for various occupations.
While the headlines can be hyperbolic (“The degree is dying!”), reality is more complex. Before we panic or succumb to an existential academic threat, let’s take a closer look. What does this shift mean for higher education, for whom the degree is currency?
Degrees in a Skills-Based Labor Market
First, we must keep in mind that the degrees in question are not every degree. In the study, the authors excluded most “high-skill” jobs for which degrees are a given. What’s under scrutiny are “middle-skill” jobs that represent “a middle ground between the roughly 25% of jobs, like physicians, civil engineers, and marketing managers, that have universal degree requirements and the 39% of jobs like short-order cooks, retail workers, and truck drivers that operate out of the scope of higher education” (p. 4). What’s left are occupations such as Real Estate Brokers, Preschool Teachers, Bookkeepers, and Customer Support Specialists (for a complete list, consult the report).
It’s interesting to note that the degree is being used as the dividing line between different skill classes. That alone speaks to its reputation as a proxy for skills. The authors of the study concur that their findings validate that the demand for degrees in job postings suggest that employers view them as an indication of “superior social and soft skills, ranging from those that are more easily evaluated, such as written and oral communications, to those less easily defined, such as commitment, self-discipline, and the ability to participate effectively in unfamiliar groups” (p. 19). In many ways, this is exactly what a higher education is designed to instill in students.
But in a labor market where the pendulum is swinging away from degrees and toward skills, how should educators respond?
The report offers two major considerations for educators and skills providers considering this shift in landscape. We can add some additional thoughts and resources that can help bridge the gap between theory and reality.
1. Keep pace with the shifting labor market
This may, as the authors suggest, include looking outside of the academy for assistance, employing such tactics as strengthening employer partnerships, creating hybrid and work-based learning programs, and sharing curriculum between institutions to share the work of keeping up.
While many academic mechanisms run slowly, there are also immediate-term options to uncover the skill-friendly practices that already exist within current curriculum and systems.
Surface existing skills in curriculum for greater visibility and help learners articulate these skills on resumes and CVs
Inform classroom decisions with real-time data from local or regional job postings
Apply principles of the agile methodology to ensure that market research takes place on a regular, timely schedule
And over the longer term, looking more closely at market alignment or breaking down a degree into subcomponents (i.e., microcredentials) can help you move faster and be more flexible in terms of equipping students with the skills requested by employers.
2. Teach soft skills by design
The authors of Degree Reset point out that many of the social skills (otherwise known as soft, or human, skills) that are expected of graduates when they enter the workforce are taught implicitly, rather than explicitly: “Chemistry instructors teach about chemical reactions, not the reactions of lab partners. English instructors teach the rules of grammar, not the rules of etiquette in the workplace” (p. 21).
While workplace etiquette may not appear on a syllabus now, that could change. In fact, incorporating skills-based language is a big step into taking the implicit and making it explicit. Most of all, it’s a matter of shifting perspective, identifying priorities, and supporting faculty.
Consider a skills-based approach general education
Support faculty and instructors in providing career-relevant instruction
Explore new ways of transcripting skills that are already taught
And most of all, market your programs using real-life skill, career, and outcomes data. This shows prospective learners and employers that you’re already framing education in terms of skills and hireability.
Employers are taking a second look on what qualifications are required for certain jobs, whether a degree, or specific skills. This shift in how employers recruit talent means that talent — your graduates — need to be equipped for a skill-first market.
By unpacking and articulating the skills that are implicit within the bachelor’s degree, you can equip advisors, career services, and faculty, to help learners navigate the modern labor market.