Educational Requirements Rising

A college degree has become the new high-school diploma, as recent research shows that more companies will seek workers with higher education qualifications. Experts weigh in on the future of educational requirements in the workplace.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015
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A jump in hiring this year will call for more candidates with higher education degrees, according to new research from CareerBuilder. Thirty-six percent of employers plan to increase their full-time, permanent roster this year, which reveals a significant boost from last year's 24 percent.

According to Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources for Chicago-based, 37 percent of those companies hiring will require that their candidates have college degrees. In fact, 28 percent of companies say they're now hiring workers with master's degrees for positions that had been primarily held by workers with four-year degrees.

"Those numbers seem scary, but for a lot of organizations, the takeaway after the recession is that those companies that rebounded more quickly already had established internal channels for innovation," she says. "That's the biggest reason why there's this drive toward wanting people with higher education credentials and companies being willing to invest in more education. It's sustained growth for the future," she says, adding that the newest trend in education is on-the-job learning that goes beyond conventional job training. "The smart companies are those that round out their strategy and offer to include lifelong learning as a benefit, not just health insurance."

In a recent survey of 14,000 employees, New York-based consultancy PwC found that 80 percent reported "in-the-moment feedback ... helps me to improve my performance," according to Mike Fenlon, PwC's U.S. and global talent leader."Teams that implemented consistent behaviors including observation and in-the-moment feedback, shadowing, delegating to drive skill development and using the Socratic method of asking questions to develop others' judgment, reported significant increases in employee engagement, decreased turnover and improved business outcomes," he says, acknowledging the fact that job candidates are often required to have a college degree just to get a foot in the door.

"There's clearly a megatrend toward greater and greater specialization across all professional arenas," says Fenlon, adding that the need for more workers with technical expertise and broader attributes increases as the business world transforms. "Companies look for leadership skills, business acumen, the ability to work effectively on a global scale, and better communication skills, while they also expect more specialized, technical knowledge. It's an interesting set of cross-currents."

Fenlon says education itself is being transformed as companies begin to hire more people with advanced degrees. "There's an increasing scrutiny and questions being raised about the relevance of undergraduate preparation," he says, acknowledging that schools are responding. "Colleges are transforming how they deliver learning; how they anchor it with job-ready, career-ready skills."

And investing education funding strategically makes more sense for an organization that needs workers with skills to drive the organization forward, says Jay Titus, director of academic and student support at EdAssist, which is part of the Watertown, Mass.-based Bright Horizons.

"This is a better ROI than recruiting the unknown," he says, adding that he's seeing an uptick in tuition policies. "We consult with organizations on their tuition policies and the right partners, schools and academic vendors to work with. Companies need to start funding education; but not as a benefit for another bachelors or master's or PhD."

Titus acknowledges that not all roads lead to a liberal arts education.

"Getting a degree is not always the right path; it's industry-specific, and this especially applies to technology," he says, adding that many companies offer employees a wide range of options in their tuition policies to allow for all types of education, including specific training courses that would be relevant.

He says he's seeing more employers wanting candidates who have the ability to acquire specific skills that are relevant to their industry and company; skills they can take advantage of right away and will lead to them seeing a return on their investment.

"More and more employers are focused on funding their employees to get those certifications," he says. "College is not as tactical."

It's essentially survival of the fittest on a corporate level, says Haefner.

"To raise your likelihood of success," she says, "your talent has to be innovative, not just technically strong. More companies are willing to do that internally and be creative about how they're marketing [training courses] to employees, so there's a value attached to it. People do value learning as an important benefit, but they want to say they have a degree."

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And, while company-sponsored "universities" may not always be an option for smaller employers, she says those organizations should not get discouraged.

"There is potential for every business, small or large," says Haefner, noting that the actual utilization of formal tuition-reimbursement programs is only 20 percent.

Company leaders must think about what is needed by the business to meet their goals and what skills they need to teach their workforce, she says.

"Then think about how to package it for your employees so they see an opportunity to actually learn something, not just a job requirement," she says. "You can brand it and give gifts, but it's a subtle communication plan to make your employees hungry for the opportunities you're presenting."

Job descriptions are the platform for a company's expectations, so Titus advises HR and hiring managers to have in-depth conversations with the functional department and encourage benefits departments to make sure that managers understand the necessary skills and job requirements.

"Encourage HR to collaborate with learning and development and benefits to take a deeper look at what's needed in terms of skill gaps, and put your dollars into that so you're investing in what's necessary and what's relevant," Titus says. "Don't spend time and energy recruiting individuals with certain degrees or credentials next to their name when the company is already funding people in the organization through tuition assistance or departmental training."

Beyond the technical elements and requirements of a job description, HR leaders should want to communicate the expectation of continuing learning, Fenlon says, as it demonstrates a personal and professional commitment to develop and build skills.

"And there are few attributes more important than a commitment to learning," he says.

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