Consider hiring for potential instead of a college degree

When I graduated high school, college wasn’t the only option available.

Many companies regularly employed individuals with only high school diplomas. Trade apprenticeships, blue-collar jobs and manufacturing jobs all were open to high school graduates. White-collar jobs also started high school graduates on the ground floor.

You would start at the bottom. If you worked hard and learned what you could, you would be eligible for promotions. That career path many times accompanied gaining a college degree over time. The college would be financed privately by the employee or partially or entirely by the company. Companies used their managers to assess workers for certain required aptitudes, invested in identified star employees, and as a result, developed a loyal and engaged workforce

That has all changed over the last two decades. With college attendance more common, hiring managers started using a degree to screen applicants, throwing away resumes from those without degrees.

A degree became a standard for employment and the lack of one was perceived as a red flag that the person must be lazy, unreliable or dumb.

Then hiring managers became picky. They didn’t take a chance on someone who lacked a track record in the industry or who didn’t quite fit the mold within their organization.

A company selling widgets didn’t care if the applicant had a proven sales record unless they had a sales record in selling widgets.

With workforce shortages being reported in most industries, companies need to re-evaluate the norm in hiring perceptions and practices. Current hiring assumptions are proving to be false. Companies are finding more success by focusing on a wider variety of candidates with strong aptitudes for developing new skills and an even stronger desire to learn.

I attended a recent panel composed of an advocate for hiring the disabled, a head of a non-for-profit and the diversity and inclusion leader of a large retailer. The advocate for the disabled spoke about a population that is 75 percent unemployed but ready and able to work. He spoke of companies who took the leap of faith and found the individuals to be hard-working and reliable, with less absenteeism and lower turnover than the rest of the workforce.

Yet most employers refuse to go there because these candidates fall outside their familiarity zone.

The nonprofit’s mission identifies individuals with certain traits and an aptitude for computer programming. The leader described many success stories of high school graduates who learned sought-after coding languages and are filling programming jobs. The new crop of programmers had strong math aptitudes and showed a demonstrated desire to learn code. The D&I retailer spoke about the company’s comprehensive program that teaches individuals, who would have otherwise been passed over for a job, to learn retail operations and various retail roles. The program recognized individuals who needed some reasonable accommodations and a more comprehensive onboarding process. The result was more hires, increased assimilation and improved retention.

What the three panelists had in common was their ability to envision the endless potential of untapped resources. They led hiring with identified traits and aptitude rather than simply a college degree or industry experience. The looked for:

• An eagerness to take feedback and learn;

• A strong sense of self-direction and career ownership;

• An expectation that skills, knowledge and experience are gained over time.

By the way, these are the success traits for degreed and non-degreed workers.

Many individuals find traditional education painful. A program such as the nonprofit’s targeted approach to education or the retailer’s approach is much more conducive to the way they learn.

Working up the ladder is an experience-based approach to learning that allows some low-income students a way to a debt-free education.

We must alter our perception that college is the only avenue to learning or the idea one degree is the end of learning. Another missed population is young-at-heart retirees. This population is self-directed and motivated to learn new things. The truth is opposite to the perception of older workers not being able to learn. Many have experienced a lifetime of change. They possess the emotional intelligence to learn quickly. They understand the concept of career ownership and what it takes to succeed.

Some employers complain they are struggling with a good but impatient workforce. Some young workers behave as if a job is a video game where a few slick moves automatically takes them to the next level. When real life doesn’t align with those expectations, the individual becomes easily discouraged.

Individuals who are dedicated to the long haul understand advancement is earned. When given a chance to advance, they feel an obligation to “give back” to the organization that invested in them. They want instant results but understand it takes time to develop skill, knowledge and experience.

Back when there were fewer college graduates, managers were much more open to hiring individuals out of high school. Many industry leaders had their start in this way.

I worked my way through college and I was fortunate to find an employer who hired me without a degree and recognized my willingness to learn and get ahead.

I was able to apply what I was learning to the company. My employer often spoke about how they benefited from the ways I grew personally and professionally. When I left, I held a senior-level position in the organization.

With workforce shortages upon us, hiring managers need to become more comfortable considering non-traditional and non-degreed candidates. It’s time to re-evaluate current beliefs and reintroduce the ways we leveraged high school graduates historically.

Hiring managers should filter candidates for potential and desired attributes. Different forms of education should be valued. An untapped workforce is capable of learning and growing. Hiring for potential should become the new norm.

Who knows who the next industry leader can be.