Nearshore Americas

College Degrees Aren’t Cutting It: Pursuing Better Ways to Measure Skills

The narrative around employment has dramatically shifted in the last few years, and even more so in the last six months. Post-pandemic employment is the main driver of these changes, many of which we are just starting to grasp. While this swing varies for different sorts of jobs, there is an overarching paradigm shift across industries: skills are becoming the unequivocal foundation for everything work-related.

Skilling means wildly different things for different sectors, and we can already see a lot of emerging literature about how this is the future of work, quite like remote working a couple years ago.

I wholeheartedly agree that skills should be the cornerstone for employment, from hiring to growth. However, before diving head-on and fully embracing this narrative, there are two vital aspects to consider:

  • Skills can’t be treated the same way employers treat formal learning. Skill proficiency happens over time through a combination of knowledge acquisition and practical repetition.
  • Skills need proxies too. People need to be able to showcase and communicate their skill set and its respective level of proficiency to employers in a cost and time efficient way.

I’d argue there is a significant problem with the current employment infrastructure that won’t let either the workforce nor employers leverage the full potential of a skills-first approach.

Over the last decades, employers have seen college degrees as that one final step before employment and have historically used these to filter for qualified candidates. Employers hence assume that the process of going through college (and the formal school system) provides people with enough knowledge and social skills to perform well in the workplace, as if people could and should only learn in the earlier part of their lives.

However, data suggests the opposite, with 9 out of 10 executives saying employees do not have the skills they need, even for candidates out of college.

Skills can’t be treated the same way employers treat formal learning.

The problem is not college degrees or education per se; it’s the fact that we understand learning as something finite when it is quite the contrary: an ongoing process that is made up of a combination of multiple factors. For both college graduates and members of the workforce without formal college education, most of their skilling will happen in the workplace through experiential and complementary learning. In fact, research suggests that up to 90% of people’s lifelong learning will happen in the workplace through professional experience and interactions among peers.

Although this might seem like a concept that is almost universally accepted, the current employment infrastructure pushes employers to expect people to come into the workplace fully trained and with college degrees as evidence of skill proficiency. In actuality, college degrees serve a different purpose.

To fully embrace a skill-first based approach, employers need to accept that most -if not all- of the employees will become significantly more proficient in the workplace. This is a lot more consistent with learning theory and best practices.

I’d like to introduce this concept as Organic Talent Skilling (OTS): people at large will learn new skills and improve their fluency over others from organic exposure to experiences, challenges, training content and colleagues while in the workplace, not before.

Employers in 63% of occupations [are] dropping their degree requirements

To circle back to my second point; skills need proxies too. Up until now, employers have been forced to rely on college degrees alone to measure skill proficiency. In a way, college degrees have represented the only reliable source of information for this, and thus have become largely adopted as proxy for skill proficiency, even though they do not convey the right information regarding skills.

This approach is particularly concerning when considering that up to two thirds of the workforce and working age population do not have access to a college degree. By assuming college degrees communicate skill mastery, employers end up with misplaced talent, large demographic attrition rates and productivity loses.

Macro-economic factors are rapidly pushing employers to transition into a skill-first approach, driving a major structural reset in hiring, with employers in 63% of occupations dropping their degree requirements.

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But employers are struggling to identify and assess candidates and their skill levels. The current employment infrastructure has never accounted for this. People do not have evidence of their skill fluency and work experience. Moreover, employers cannot identify and internalize current skill levels, both for candidates and current employees.

This drives employers to implement inefficient and inaccurate skill assessment processes. If, as KPMG and LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky said, skills are the new currency, the current employment infrastructure is failing to provide a way to securely hold, verify and share skill proxies that communicate OTS and talent growth. Otherwise, we are trying to run even before we can walk.

Mariano Miranda

Mariano Miranda is a Yale ’18 graduate in Economics and Education Studies. He has conducted academic research into poverty, social mobility and the influence of education in labor. His work as tech entrepreneur and founder focuses around education, skills, professional experience and ultimately employment in Latin America.

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