Employers Replaced Degree Requirements with Soft Skill Requirements

Employers Replaced Degree Requirements with Soft Skill Requirements

Andrew Chambers

February 6, 2024

In the last post , we broke down the Governor of Massachusetts decision to eliminate degree requirements for over 90% of state jobs and the significance of that Executive Order for the traditional 4 year university. If you haven’t read that post yet, I recommend you give it a read first.

In this post, we’ll look at what requirements replaced the traditional four year degree in state job postings and what that means for the workforce moving forward. It should be noted that most of the statistical information in this post was gleaned from the Harvard University connected Burning Glass Institute’s study on the future of the workforce entitled The Emerging Degree Reset, which you can find here. Harvard, as you know, is considered the vanguard of higher education (or, at least it was until those unfortunate senate hearings a few months ago).

The temptation is to interpret the nixing of degree requirements in a job posting as an employer lowering their standards in regards to what candidates they are willing to consider for the position. That makes sense, as for decades the assumption has been that candidates with traditional degrees are inherently more qualified for the workforce than candidates without them, as they are supposed to have acquired the soft skills of communication, self-discipline, computer literacy, time management, critical thinking and problem solving, detail orientation, organization skills, etc etc while in college. 

So, according to the Burning Glass Institute, over time, the traditional bachelor’s degree listed on a resume was considered a proxy for the above “soft skills”. I.e. if a candidate had a traditional bachelor’s degree, than they must have communication, self-discipline, computer literacy, time management and all the other skills listed above.

The only problem? According to the Burning Glass Institute’s paper, “Research has demonstrated that degree holders in middle-skilled positions have higher rates of voluntary turnover and lower levels of engagement, while commanding a material wage premium even though their performance more often is not equal to or worse than the performance of their experienced, non-degree holding colleagues in the same job. When viewed in its totality, that is a poor tradeoff.”

Translation: degree holders were more likely to have higher rates of turnover and be less engaged while demanding more money, even though their performance was often worse than the performance of non-degree holding colleagues. 

For productivity-minded employers, it’s becoming increasingly clear that it makes no sense to eliminate a large number of potentially better-fit applicants by requiring a traditional degree. And that’s why institutions from the State of Massachusetts to Wal-Mart to IBM are doing away with degree requirements unless the degree is deemed absolutely necessary for doing the job (which, in over 90% of cases, it’s not).

But if the candidate requirements aren’t getting softer, then what’s replacing the degree requirement on job postings? 

You guessed it: soft skills.

The Burning Glass Institute’s analysis of 30 million jobs between 2017 and 2019 found “that employers that cut [academic] credential requirements also sought job candidates with a wider and deeper set of skills than were required previously: For occupations traditionally reserved for degree holders, a reset requires employers to be more articulate about the skills they require for the job. When the academic hurdle is lowered, other, more specific hurdles are raised. A pattern emerges from the change in emphasis placed on specific skills: the biggest increases in requirements are related to soft or social skills…Having eliminated a degree requirement, many employers explicitly stipulate that candidates should possess a range of specific soft skills.”

Employers want to know that candidates have the soft skills pertinent to the job they are posting, whether that be computer literacy or verbal communication and people skills. They used to equate “traditional bachelor’s degree” with these soft skills, but can no longer do so, so are explicitly asking for these skills in job postings instead of the traditional degree.


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At Excel College, we help students become wise, mature, and productive adults who live everyday with purpose and seek to add value wherever we go. That’s why employers fight for spots in our career fairs and are always asking when our next group of students come in - because they know they’ll be hiring employees who are being trained in the soft skills that the marketplace really values, not just earning a piece of paper.

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