Talent specialists at IBM, Bank of America, and Recruit Rise reveal the best practices for hiring someone without a college degree.

Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Jack Dorsey, Bill Gates. Innovators, pioneers, and thought leaders. Their names conjure technological advancement, brilliance, and success. But they have something in common beyond founding leading-edge brands: None of them have a four-year degree.

They were accidental trendsetters in that regard. As undergrad enrollment fell by 3.1% over the last year and national student loan debt rose to $1.75 trillion, 50% of undergraduate students opted for associate’s degrees and professional certificates rather than four-year degrees—and top companies are taking note.

In 2020, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk—who holds two bachelor’s degrees—said he was against requiring prospective employees to have a traditional degree: “I think colleges are basically for fun and to prove you can do your chores, but they’re not for learning.”

In 2016, Penguin Random House eliminated degree requirements from all job postings. And in 2019, Apple CEO Tim Cook announced that half of the company’s US employees—who occupy roles like data center logistics manager and creative director of events and content—do not have a four-year college degree. Other top-rated companies, from Google to Netflix to Workday, have employees in key roles who never completed college and some who never graduated from high school.

Additionally, a recent study from Harvard Business Review and Esmi Burning Glass found that a growing number of employers are “resetting” degree requirements in a wide range of roles. It projects that 1.4 million jobs could be available to candidates without college degrees over the next five years.

Post-secondary education is far from obsolete, but its position of prominence is certainly changing. Even before COVID-19 disrupted the workforce, prospective college students were rethinking their futures. Although the number of people ages 25 and older who completed a bachelor’s degree increased to 37.9% from 30.4% in the last decade, there were nearly 250,000 fewer students enrolled in college in 2019 than the year before.

For recruiters, this shift is ripe with opportunity. As the labor force dwindles and job openings reach record-high levels, it’s an excellent time to cast a wider net when hiring for careers that don’t require college degrees—and attract more diverse candidates. Here’s how to do it well.

Pave Alternative Pathways

By acknowledging discrepancies in the labor pool, recruiters can open doors to candidates with nontraditional backgrounds. That starts with college education. Awareness of education gaps—and the racial and socioeconomic reasons for them—is one of the first steps in building a more inclusive and viable workplace.

“We have really had this focus on the fact that degrees create and exacerbate some of [the] inequality in the workforce,” says Kelli Jordan, Director of IBM Career, Skills, and Performance.

According to the US Census Bureau, 61% of Asian and 41.9% of non-Hispanic white adults ages 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher. In comparison, 28.1% of Black adults ages 25 and older and 20.6% of Hispanic adults in the same age group have that level of education.
Bar graph showing the division of the labor force in the US by race in 2020 and emphasizing that white adults represent the majority: 77%.

Employment demographics show an even wider gap. White adults make up 77% of the labor force in the United States, while Black and Asian adults constitute 13% and 6%, respectively. In an effort to mitigate the discrepancy, top companies like IBM are creating programs and initiatives to address these socioeconomic-based education gaps.

In 2017, the company launched the New Collar apprenticeship program, which creates pathways for candidates from different socioeconomic backgrounds who might not have a college degree. The 12-to-24-month program pairs apprentices with an IBM mentor and gives them opportunities to work on live IBM projects. According to Jordan, the company has hired more than 90% of its apprentice graduates to work in fields like cybersecurity, software development, data science, and marketing.

“[It] goes to show that there [are] jobs in every area of the [tech] industry that don’t necessarily require a degree,” Jordan says, noting that 50% of US job openings at IBM don’t list a college degree as a minimum requirement.

Bank of America is also publicizing the fact that many of their roles don’t require four-year degrees. “The great thing about Bank of America is that for years we have not required [college] degrees for the majority of our jobs,” says Christie Gragnani-Woods, Senior Vice President and Head of Talent Acquisition Executive. Instead, their hurdle is getting the word out to candidates without degrees that there are opportunities for them in the financial services industry.

“We have a skills-based talent strategy, so we focus on four different areas: sales, service and support, operations, and software development,” she says. “We have jobs in every single one of those categories that do not require degrees.”

 In 2018, the company started its Pathways program, which aimed to hire 10,000 individuals from low-to-moderate income neighborhoods. According to Woods, her team reached that goal so quickly that they made a second commitment: hiring an additional 10,000 candidates by 2025.

For recruiters at companies that do not offer apprenticeship programs—and who are looking to diversify their talent pools—Jordan has some advice.

“Start by looking at where you anticipate the most growth,” she says. “What roles could benefit from a stronger pipeline of talent, beginning with apprenticeships? Bring the idea forward sooner rather than later. Once you have a view of how it fits into your overall talent strategy, [that is] a great time to have the conversation, because buy-in and support are needed for a program like this.”

Jordan also suggests researching what other companies are doing and taking note.

“One of the best resources is to connect with others who are doing this same work,” she says. “Look for coalitions or groups that are focused on creating apprenticeship programs. They’ll be a great resource for best practices and other advice that could help accelerate the design and launch of your program.”

Identify Desirable Candidate Qualities

Biases toward hiring candidates with an Ivy League education, especially in industries like technology, mean candidates without degrees might have to fight harder to be seen.

“I have seen a strong bias from hiring managers where they want people to come from very specific schools,” says Nora Hamada, founder of Recruit Rise, a nine-week program that trains and places candidates in tech recruiting roles. “I see that in engineering roles specifically. Not having a four-year degree and being a self-taught programmer [can] be a really hard road.”

But candidates don’t need a degree to prove they are capable of similar output as those with Ivy League backgrounds.

“I’m of the personal belief that college [will] potentially phase out completely or look radically different in the future,” she says. “We’re entering a very different economy: a skills-based economy. Hiring managers and companies are looking for a specific skill set, and if [a candidate] doesn’t have [it], it’s unlikely that they’re going to get the job.”

For recruiters, this means reading between the lines on resumes and identifying candidates whose relevant work experience makes up for any education gaps.

“I think for recruiters, it’s about changing their mindset in terms of what they would traditionally look for in [an] applicant,” says Jordan. “How might somebody have built skills in a different type of role? You can build leadership skills working in a retail environment.”

Hamada seconds that idea: “It’s hard to judge if someone has great verbal communication skills through a LinkedIn profile or an application, but their previous jobs might indicate that.” She cites customer service and hospitality as jobs where you can learn and demonstrate how to deal with customers that might not always be pleasant.

Adaptability is another highly desired quality, especially as the pandemic subsides. Candidates can demonstrate adaptability in different ways, such as noting on a resume when they’ve had to adjust their working style in team settings, or highlighting past successes with changing environments.

“We look for people that can adapt to changing demands and requirements because, as we've all seen in the last couple of years, everything has changed so much,” says Gragnani-Woods. “[The] ability to be flexible, adapt, learn new things, and be able to be agile in this ever-changing world we live in is important to us.”

Job seekers without degrees who demonstrate a desire and eagerness to learn—even in a nonacademic setting—also make attractive candidates. Job training and non-degree awards are alternative ways to build sought-after skills needed for top jobs.

“[We look] for candidates that are expressing curiosity,” says Jordan. “Have they been taking courses or getting certifications? The types of certifications are certainly going to vary by the type of job role, but many are available through different networking companies. There’s a lot that people can do to build their skills for free.”

Chart showing the fastest-growing jobs in the US that don’t require a four-year college degree and ranked by median salary.

Compensate Competitively

Another thing recruiters should prepare for when sourcing talent without degrees? Salary expectations. Candidates might assume they’ll make less than their degreed competition, but that isn’t always true. There are plenty of fast-growing, high-paying jobs that don’t require a degree across a number of industries.

Chart showing the fastest-growing jobs in the US that don’t require a four-year college degree and ranked by median salary.

According to the latest report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs like wind turbine service technician and solar photovoltaic installer are expected to be in high demand over the next decade. Neither require a bachelor’s degree. In healthcare, occupational and physical therapist assistants are also fast-growing, in-demand careers and require only an associate’s degree. Other jobs—like fitness trainer, wood model-maker, and costume attendant—are also highly sought after and only require a high school education.

Even beyond the fast-growing industries, there are jobs with big salaries that don’t require a college degree. Commercial pilots; transportation, storage, and distribution managers; and first-line supervisors of police and detectives are among the top three highest-paying jobs with no degree requirements. (According to information from 2019, all three have a median annual wage of more than $90,000.) In tech, cybersecurity analysts make around $95,000 per year, systems analysts around $88,000, and web developers around $68,000 a year. Sales representatives across industries earn a median pay of around $60,000, but depending on their field, could earn salaries of more than $100,000.

These numbers are important for recruiters to keep in mind because job seekers are paying extra attention to salaries in 2022. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, 73% of recruiters reported negotiating higher salaries more often for candidates and current employees in 2021, an increase of more than 20% since 2020.

Depending on a recruiter’s specific role, there are different ways to assist both candidates and companies through salary conversations and negotiations. For example, contingency recruiters—those outsourced by a hiring company—will have a specific range and should work to match that range to the appropriate candidate, according to Hamada. In-house recruiters, on the other hand, might want to provide mid-range salary expectations during outreach.

“The reason that [in-house] recruiters don’t often tell [candidates] the high part of the range is because everybody wants more,” she says. “Folks will have that number in mind, and it doesn’t set up the recruiter for success.”

Setting reasonable expectations helps maintain interest and fill jobs, assuring both candidate and company satisfaction.

Create the Ultimate Win-Win

As the workforce evolves, recruiters are in an advantageous position to lead the charge toward a more equitable hiring process.

“[It’s like] the gold rush. There are people selling the shovels, right?” says Hamada. “Recruiters are selling the shovels. They’re finding the tools that you need to strike gold.”

Remember that today’s prospective job seekers have experienced a global pandemic. Many of them lost jobs and homes; many picked up new, hands-on skills out of necessity—and they learned to adapt in unprecedented circumstances.

“It’s about all of the different skills and characteristics and life lessons that people are bringing to the table after several years of hardship,” says Gragnani-Woods. “Your connectivity is just at an all-time high.”

Jordan agrees.

“I think the market is using the phrase ‘the Great Resignation,’ but I think it’s actually about the Great Reimagining,” she says. “Are you thinking differently about work that you want to do, the mission you want to have, or the purpose you want to support? Companies are reacting to [questions like] that.”

As recruiters build out teams, looking past old standards—like bachelor’s degrees—and at a candidate’s distinct qualities is a vital way to reinvigorate the labor force and ensure brand success. It can even improve a company’s product.

“If you don’t have diverse people building technology, you’re not creating technology that's going to work for a diverse population,” Jordan says of the benefits of inclusive hiring at IBM.

An even better result: Significantly changing a person’s life.

“The most rewarding thing is hearing from someone that they got their first apartment or bought their first car,” says Gragnani-Woods. “That there was a company that believed in them. That they finally feel like they can take care of their family. That’s what it’s all about: Doing the right thing and getting people into great jobs that make a huge impact on their lives.”