Some states are removing the requirement for college degrees when posting most of their government positions. Do you have any thoughts on this and how it will affect recruiting, and how it might affect the commercial world if it adopted the same rule? For instance, if a recruiter can’t rely on a degree, what can they look at?
I know you’re referring to the controversy in the labor market about whether job descriptions that specify a college degree actually require one to do the job. Is the degree really necessary? But let’s get underneath that: What can an employer — whether government or commercial — rely on to make a sound hiring judgment?
What do college degrees mean to recruiters?
What good does a candidate’s college degree do a recruiter if they don’t verify it? We’ve seen enough of this in the news — and by the time phony claims of degrees and fake resumes are exposed it’s always too late! The damage has been done to the individual’s reputation (and career and income), but also to the employer’s credibility. (Who wants to invest in, buy from, or work for a company that embarrasses itself like that?)
Removing a degree requirement will make little difference to a good recruiter who relies on more meaningful and reliable assessments of job candidates. On the other hand, it will drive inept recruiters nuts because now they actually have to do the hard work of qualifying applicants. Likewise, college-educated job seekers may find themselves having to demonstrate actual ability to do a job, rather than rest on their academic credentials.
Don’t get me wrong. I think college degrees are useful to a recruiter, but they are not sufficient for making judgments about candidates. The real message in the elimination of degree requirements is that employers need to do a much better job of assessing candidates directly, rather than relying on proxies like sheepskins, certifications, third-party reference checks, and indirect algorithm-driven evaluations. This goes for all kinds of jobs, not just government or “professional” ones.
So let’s answer your question.
If not college degrees, then what should recruiters look at?
Next to a demonstration of how they’d do the job, I think the single best indicator of a good candidate is their references. The best recruiters do their own reference checks. The lazy ones don’t do it all or outsource it — and I think this is a critical mistake. (See References: How employers bungle a competitive edge.) A third-party reference checker who’s just asking canned questions is not going to “read between the lines.” Even written references aren’t sufficient. You need that phone call and you’ve got to hear the voice.
I have always done reference checks myself on all my candidates – before I send them to a client employer. I want to know whether their resume and other claims they make are confirmed by people they’ve worked with. If the references conflict with any conclusions I might draw from the resume or the degree, it’s “no dice.” I’ve placed people with no degree who are stars – more expert than degreed people. And I’ve tossed out candidates with degrees when their references fail to support what their college degree implies.
What’s most interesting to me are candidates with no degrees and weak resumes. These poor people just don’t know how to portray themselves. But if their references SING! — that makes me take another look, and that’s made me lots of dough. Nothing makes me look better than finding a star everybody else has missed! But what about the recruiter who just skims the surface and misses a great candidate?
The Columbo Method
There’s something I ask at the end of every reference check that helps me test whatever I’ve already concluded. It’s an interrogation technique made famous in an old TV show, Columbo, starring Peter Falk as a disarmingly casual police detective. As I’m saying thanks and goodbye to the reference, I stop and ask, “Uh, just one more thing. If you could hire this person again today, would you?”
Like Columbo, I want to catch the reference off-guard. What I’m looking for is any hesitation before a YES. That is to say, even good references might not be enough! No automated reference check is going to give you that data point – nor will a degree.
Unfortunately, the elimination of degree requirements will likely make a bigger mess of inadequate recruiting practices. Maybe direct assessment of ability to do the job and talking with people who have first-hand experience working with the candidate will suddenly appear to be a really good idea. Which recruiters can do it?
Uh, just one more thing… College degrees, or…
Here’s an idea for a test I’d love to see. Line up 20 job candidates who have no college degree and 20 with degrees. Let employers interview all of them — for job postings that do and don’t specify a degree — without disclosing who does and does not have a degree. Who gets hired? How do the employers decide?
Have you ever gotten a good job that “required” a degree you didn’t have? If you have a degree, think you could win a job without relying on it? Ever hire someone without a degree for a “degreed” position? If you’re a recruiter, how much stock do you put in college degrees? What else do you rely on to assess a candidate?