Employers claim to value alternative degrees. Do their practices match their promises?


Workforce experts are very interested in the potential of alternative degrees, such as certificates, badges and apprenticeships, to help more people get better jobs without necessarily having to go to college.

But for this to actually work, employers need to value those credentials. Many business leaders say they do this, as part of their effort to reward skills, not just degrees. And some employers even issue their own credentials, like IBM and Google.

Yet all of this rhetoric hinges on when a resume lands on a hiring manager‘s desk. How will he react to an application that has an alternative degree instead of a university degree? And what about such a CV will even end up in the consideration pile?

New research published this week by the Society for Human Resource Management aims to answer these questions. The survey and the results of the experiment show that even if executives say they support alternative degrees, the practices and attitudes of mid-level managers and HR professionals do not always value these achieved certifications.

This calls into question the value of alternative degrees for job seekers. And that has implications for higher education providers trying to promote non-degree programs as a way for people to advance in the job market, as well as government officials considering how to hold vocational training responsible for student outcomes.

Disconnect between C-Suite and hiring managers

In the summer of 2021, the Society for Human Resource Management surveyed 500 executives, 1,200 supervisors, 1,129 human resource professionals, and 1,525 workers who do not supervise other employees about their attitudes toward credentials alternatives. The results suggest that there is a disconnect between what business leaders think and the opinions of managers and HR professionals who are actually responsible for hiring.

When asked if alternative degrees have value for employee development, the vast majority of executives, supervisors, and HR professionals said yes. When asked if alternative degrees help workers gain credibility, more than two-thirds of each group agreed.

But the three groups disagreed on whether workers with alternative credentials perform better. While 70% of executives said yes, only 53% of supervisors and only 31% of HR professionals agreed.

Supervisors and HR professionals were also more discreet in their appreciation of alternative degrees compared to traditional university degrees:

  • Among executives, 61% said they place a high value on traditional degrees, compared to 50% who say the same for alternative degrees.
  • This disparity widened among supervisors: 49% placed a high value on traditional degrees and 28% placed a high value on alternative degrees.
  • And it widened even further among HR professionals: 54% placed a high value on traditional degrees and only 15% placed a high value on alternative degrees.
  • Although 71% of executives said some alternative degrees were equivalent to a bachelor’s degree, only 58% of supervisors and 36% of HR professionals agreed.

When asked to rank the importance of alternative degrees in hiring decisions, executives ranked them sixth (behind experience, education, listed skills, work history, and job performance). interviews), while supervisors ranked them 10th and HR professionals 11th.

For a job seeker, impressing a potential HR manager or supervisor matters a lot. But before an app even reaches a human, it often has to go through an automated screening process. And that could be another hurdle for people who have alternate credentials. The report found that 45% of HR professionals use automated screening systems to review candidate resumes, and only 32% of these systems recognize other credentials.

Test alternative degrees

Asking people about their beliefs doesn’t always provide insight into how they act. So the Society for Human Resource Management designed an experiment to see how hiring managers and HR professionals assess resumes with different college degrees and/or alternative degrees.

The association presented 1,530 hiring managers and 1,848 human resources professionals with advertisements for four different positions: customer service supervisor, marketing specialist, data analyst and senior project manager, for which a bachelor’s degree was either required , either preferred, or only a high school diploma required. . Evaluators also received resumes from “candidates” who had varying levels of education (high school, associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree) and either an alternate degree or no alternate degree.

In several cases, evaluators ranked candidates who had alternative degrees as more qualified, more skilled, less likely to need training, and more deserving of higher salary offers than their peers who did not have degrees. alternatives.

But in most cases, applicants who had a traditional degree had a greater advantage than their counterparts with alternative degrees. This was especially true when job postings had strict educational requirements, a standard that hiring managers and experienced HR professionals generally endorsed.

As the report explains, “Traditional degrees provide easy rules of thumb when hiring decision makers need to narrow large pools of applicants.”

Changing mindsets and hiring practices

These human attitudes and actions, along with automated screening practices, matter because a significant portion of workers invest time and money in obtaining alternative credentials.

Nearly half of workers surveyed said they had one, according to research by the Society for Human Resource Management. And organizational leaders come across alternative degrees quite often: 90% of executives, 81% of supervisors, and 77% of HR professionals say they come across candidates who hold them “at least sometimes.”

So what’s stopping supervisors and HR professionals from more fully embracing all those certificates, badges, and learnings? The search identified several refrains.

A common concern among managers is that it is not always clear what skills alternative credentials convey, or how employers should assess those skills. Another concern is that the quality is too varied among the nearly one million unique credentials available to workers. HR professionals who are actually responsible for hiring tend to appreciate clear signs of the quality of degrees, the report says, such as the exams that must be passed to earn them, the actual work experience they have need or approvals from reputable industry organizations.

One of the purported benefits of alternative degrees is that they can make workplaces more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. But executives and HR professionals don’t seem to agree on this.

When asked if recognizing other credentials would help their organizations hire more diverse candidates, 79% of executives and 74% of supervisors agreed, compared to 55% of HR professionals. An even wider gap emerged when these three groups were asked whether recognizing alternative degrees would lead to greater diversity in corporate leadership. While 78% of executives and 71% of supervisors thought so, only 46% of HR professionals agreed.

Addressing these disparate concerns and attitudes will be key to making alternative degrees more viable in the job market, the research concludes.

In a set of recommendations on how employers can move toward this goal, the Society for Human Resource Management suggests companies train supervisors and HR professionals to value other credentials; create better methods of filtering requests for badges and certificates; rethink job descriptions; and compiling lists of approved and most sought-after credentials for job applicants.


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