You might have seen an advertisement at bus and el kiosks around Oak Park and Chicago referring to Grads of Life and featuring a photo of a 20-something, professionally dressed person who is looking for a job. The ad asks: “In looking for the perfect resume, have you overlooked the perfect candidate?”
Many young adults in Oak Park, Berwyn, Maywood, Cicero and Chicago neighborhoods do not have college degrees and are sidelined in low-wage retail jobs. Meanwhile, companies struggle to hire and retain workers with the technical and soft skills needed in knowledge-based project work.
Many of these are middle-skill jobs, not entry level jobs that require little training (think maintenance workers) and not professional-level jobs that require a college degree (think actuaries and accountants). The economy is booming with middle-skill jobs such as information security, project management, financial operations, IT help desk, and data analytics.
The nice thing about middle-skill jobs is that they pay a livable wage ($16 to $25 per hour) and usually have a career ladder to higher positions in the company.
The problem is that hiring practices are stuck in the past. In my role as executive director of Year Up Chicago, a workforce training program focused on 18- to 24-year-olds who are not persisting in college, I frequently hear employers talk about a company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion while adding in the same breath: “But you have to have a college degree to work here.”
Adding a college requirement to a job description excludes 79 percent of all African Americans and 83 percent of all Latinos from the applicant pool.
And often in today’s economy, a college degree is not needed. The apt question is more often whether a person can code or apply critical-thinking skills to manipulate data in a Microsoft Excel pivot table.
Hiring a college grad to a position that does not require one leads to high turnover for the company as recent college grads get in the door, are trained and quickly look elsewhere for their next job.
Most companies rinse and repeat, spending on average $80,000 to hire and onboard a college grad hire who may stay at the company only 12-18 months. If you are a CEO worried about the bottom line, try exploring the return on investment in hiring college versus non-college grads for middle-skill jobs.
What can each of us do for the good of our companies and our city? Hire a person without a college degree for middle-skill positions. Look for qualities that really count: grit, an openness to learn, an acceptance of feedback, a willingness to work in teams to solve problems.
If we want to build a more just city and provide economic opportunity to those who are marginalized, let’s stop requiring a college degree for a job opening when all it may be filtering for are our own biases.