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May 1, 2023

No degree required? Employers discuss shift to skills-based hiring amid labor shortage

HBJ PHOTO | SKYLER FRAZER Panelists at the CBIA’s 2023 Workforce Summit included (from left) moderator Terrence Cheng, Connecticut State Colleges and Universities; Garrett Sheehan, Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce; John Schwartz, Trinity Health; Michelle Gilman, Dept. of Administrative Services; and Robert Griffiths, Pratt & Whitney.

Employers are rethinking their job requirements, including relying less on candidates with traditional college degrees as a way to broaden their hiring pools amid continued workforce shortages in many industries.

The Connecticut Business & Industry Association (CBIA) held its annual workforce summit on April 21, bringing together employers, students and policymakers for discussions about how to address the state’s labor crisis.

According to the state Department of Labor, Connecticut employers added 15,000 jobs through the first three months of the year. At the same time, though, Connecticut lost 4,100 people from the labor force in March, and the state still has about 100,000 job openings.

“If every unemployed person was hired tomorrow, 24,700 positions would remain unfilled,” said CBIA President and CEO Chris DiPentima.

Connecticut State Colleges and Universities President Terrence Cheng moderated a panel discussion at the CBIA event focused on partnerships between employers, schools and young people looking for career opportunities.

A big part of the conversation centered on a shift to skills-based hiring. For years, even decades, U.S. employers increasingly made a four-year degree a requirement for jobs that previously didn’t need one, leading to so-called “degree inflation” that made the labor market inefficient, even prior to the pandemic, according to a 2017 study by two Harvard Business School professors.

Employers may be starting to rethink that strategy.

For example, Trinity Health Of New England, parent of St. Francis Hospital and other in-state care providers, used to require a certification for nursing assistants, which isn’t a requisite by law. This requirement has since been dropped and replaced with a four-week, paid, in-house training program that prepares new hires for what they’ll do on the job, according to John Schwartz, Trinity Health’s senior vice president of human resources.

“There are a lot of programs that certify nursing assistants, and I’m sure that gives an employer confidence that the hired person will be a great nursing assistant, but we know that’s not necessarily true,” Schwartz said. “We also know that lots of people have the right skills, the desire, the aptitude and ability to be a nursing assistant, and that doesn’t require going to get certified.”

Dropping certain certification requirements gives people an easier pathway to begin a healthcare career and discover ways to grow in their respective fields, Schwartz said. It also gives healthcare providers a competitive edge in hiring.

“We needed to do something different and we needed to break down some of those barriers to entry,” Schwartz said. “We realized we were creating our own barriers and … problems.”

Cheng said when employers use a post-secondary degree as a primary qualification, it screens out many different applicants who might have the necessary talent and experience to fill available jobs.

In Connecticut, 90.1% of the 2.5 million residents ages 25 and older have at least a high school diploma, but only 42.1% have a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to U.S. Census data.

The state has begun to change its hiring strategy. Cheng said that 90% of open state government jobs are focused on skills and not a particular degree requirement. Connecticut Department of Administrative Services Commissioner Michelle Gilman said that information technology, building inspector and other positions are examples of high-paying jobs offered by the state that no longer require a college degree.

That is a shift from how the state used to hire for certain positions, Gilman said, and a skills-based hiring approach has been active for several years now.

“Particularly in the face of the pandemic and the aftermath of what we’ve experienced in the economy, we’re out turning over every stone looking at opportunities to not only recruit but retain talent,” Gilman said. “If you look at our job board today, … our jobs require skills not degrees — we exchanged degrees for experience.”

Panelist Garrett Sheehan, president and CEO of the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce, mentioned BioLaunch — a state-funded Yale University biotech workforce development program — as an example of local partnerships working to broaden the employment net beyond college graduates.

The program — which targets 18- to 26-year-old, non-college bound people in marginalized communities — launched in January and includes a four-month training program that ends with a paid industrial internship with local biopharma labs. Trainees receive a monthly stipend while they work through the program.

“It’s a program for non-college participants to get involved with bioscience companies that are very difficult to get into,” Sheehan said. “This is an incredible opportunity to get people employed and into these types of jobs.”

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