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What Matters More: Skills or Degrees?

We increasingly hear employers, prospective students and futurists saying that it is all about the skills, not about the degree. What does that mean for higher ed?

July 10, 2019
 

Historically, employers made the baccalaureate, and in some cases advanced degrees, the gateway to an interview. If you did not hold the sheepskin, you would not get in the door. But times have changed. Rapidly advancing technologies such as artificial intelligence, big data analytics, robotics and the advent of quantum computing have created an environment in which much of what is learned in college becomes outdated in a few short years. Certainly, the soft skills of creative thinking, critical thinking, communication and leadership do not go out of date and remain in demand by employers. But the hard facts and skills of most of the disciplines are changing as technology ripples through the economy and society.

So, what we hear from industry is that they want workers with the soft skills that do not go out of date, as well as a basic understanding of the current hard facts and skills that will be useful for just a few years before they must be upskilled for a new generation of technology. This combination of knowledge and skills may not require a degree.

Futurists such as Mike Colagrossi suggest in the future we will acquire skills rather than degrees: “Increasingly there are more and more renowned and prestigious companies that no longer require a college degree for work. Recently Glassdoor created a list of major companies where a degree wasn't required. Some included powerhouses such as Apple and Google. Why the sudden cultural shift from the bigwigs?”

Writing in the business magazine Inc., Justin Bariso quotes LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner on the qualities employers are seeking: “These are qualities that you don't necessarily pick up from a degree. There are qualities … that have a tendency to be completely overlooked when people are sifting through résumés or LinkedIn profiles. And yet, increasingly, we find that these are the kinds of people that make the biggest difference within our organization. Increasingly I hear this mantra: Skills, not degrees. It's not skills at the exclusion of degrees. It's just expanding our perspective to go beyond degrees.”

The U.S. Labor Department is expecting that by the end of the year we will be facing a shortfall of more than two million skilled workers in our economy. Corporations are already feeling the pinch. For these openings they are no longer looking for white-collar or blue-collar workers, but, instead “new-collar” workers: “an individual who develops the technical and soft skills needed to work in technology jobs through nontraditional education paths. These workers do not have a four-year degree from college. Instead, the new-collar worker is trained through community colleges, vocational schools, software boot camps, technical certification programs, high school technical education and on-the job apprentices and internships.”

In this environment of changing expectations for applicants, higher education is taking yet another hit, this time from Google. The tech giant launched an IT support specialist certificate through Coursera in 2018 that is now enrolling tens of thousands of prospective applicants for the in-demand field of IT support. “Nearly 75,000 people have enrolled according to Natalie Van Kleef Conley, senior product manager for Grow With Google. And Conley said the program is just ramping up. Nationwide, over 150,000 IT support staff roles remain unfilled, according to data from Burning Glass Technologies. Federal data show the average annual starting salary for these jobs is $52,000.” With Google in the lead, there is little doubt that other corporate leaders will follow, creating specialized certificates customized to their field.

While this shift in employment requisites develops, we are now in the eighth straight year of declines in college enrollment. Hundreds of colleges have closed their doors in the past few years, and hundreds more are teetering on the brink.

In the near term, I agree with LinkedIn’s Weiner: “It’s not skills at the exclusion of degrees.” But, increasingly, evidence of attainment of the stated skills will be mandatory. Also, increasingly the degree will become optional. Our business in higher education will be to fulfill those basic soft skills by certifying the core skills of creative thinking, critical thinking, communication and leadership. At the same time, we must be ahead of the curve on teaching technological implementation; emerging practices and technologies; and cultivating in our students flexibility in the application of knowledge to new environments. To the extent that we succeed in these areas, we will keep the degree relevant to both employers and prospective students alike. Are you prepared for these changes? Will you lead the charge at your university to confront the emerging new realities of our role in the broader learning environment?

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