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Talent Development Leader

Slashing Through the Paper Ceiling

Monday, February 13, 2023

Many employers are learning to get out of their own way by eliminating education requirements for certain roles and instead focusing on candidates’ skills.

Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro signed an executive order on January 18 announcing that 92 percent of state government jobs won't require a four-year college degree. That equates to roughly 65,000 jobs.


When releasing the order, Shapiro stated that workers “should have the freedom to chart their own course and have a real opportunity to succeed. They should get to decide what’s best for them—whether they want to go to college or straight into the workforce—not have that decided for them.”

Similarly, recent analysis of LinkedIn data shows the number of job postings on its platform that didn’t require a four-year degree rose from 15 percent in August 2021 to 20 percent in August 2022. That 33 percent increase in a single year reveals that at least some employers are ready to tear down the paper ceiling.

But are those instances outliers?

Degrees aren’t the sole job-readiness indicator

The term paper ceiling refers to the fact that many jobs require an academic qualification, such as a bachelor’s or master’s degree. Cengage Group’s 2022 Employability Report found that 62 percent of all employers surveyed believe a degree is a must-have for their candidates, despite the fact that according to data from the Pew Research Center, less than 40 percent of all adults in the US have one.

The Employability Report underscores that organizations are being restrained by their own credentialing requirements. “Employers seem to be stuck in a contradictory cycle where they recognize that a degree is not an indicator of job readiness but nonetheless require one as part of their candidate screening process,” says Michael Hansen, CEO of Cengage Group.

And some experts believe such qualification demands play a part in America’s 11 million unfilled jobs. “This outdated mindset and degree stigma is not only widening the labor gap; it’s costing businesses time and money and turning away potential talent,” Hansen adds.

In agreement with that sentiment is Emily Rose McRae, who leads the Future of Work and Talent Analytics research teams in Gartner’s HR Practice. In 9 Future of Work Trends For 2023, McRae writes that to “fill critical roles in 2023, organizations will need to become more comfortable assessing candidates solely on their ability to perform in the role, not their credentials and prior experience. It’s more urgent than ever to rethink outdated assumptions about qualifications.”

That’s because degrees aren’t always the best indicator of job readiness. Minus any higher education degree, a growing number of frontline managers believe potential candidates may still have the requisite skills via other credentials or on-the-job experience. And recent college graduates agree.

Cengage Group found that 35 percent of graduates are likely to say skills certification or training credentials versus a traditional college degree more clearly indicate job readiness and skill level.


‘Focus on skills as the currency’

In Agility and Innovation Are Fueled by a Skills-Based Talent Strategy, the Conference Board explains that becoming a skills-based organization involves a significant change in human capital operating models as well as a new talent management mindset about employees’ capabilities.

The report adds that identifying and tracking skills across human capital practices is a complex endeavor and one that requires the support of technology. The talent management function will need to make better use of HR technology solutions with artificial intelligence functionality that leverage skills as the core, common data element.

This is also a prime opportunity for talent development leaders to step in and help their businesses identify and categorize the necessary skills for each role and then suggest multiple indicators—from four-year degrees to targeted certificate programs to previous experience—that hiring managers can use to denote a candidate’s readiness.

In an interview with Harvard Business Review, LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky says it best when he asserts that “companies that focus on skills as the currency, companies that shift away from more antiquated signals like only degree, or pedigree, or where someone worked, will help ensure that the right people can be in the right roles, with the right skills, doing the best work.”

Read more from Talent Development Leader.

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently sources and authors content for TD Magazine and CTDO, as well as manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs. Contact her at [email protected]

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