College degree or skills, what matters? India Inc headhunters are increasingly grappling with this question as the easy availability of online certification courses is creating a new breed of candidates who may not have a college degree but the right skills to do the job.
Faced with a drastic shortage of new-age skills, tech giants are already tweaking some aspects of their talent strategy. For instance, IBM India now adopts a ‘skill-first’ approach, where college degrees don’t matter.
“The biggest example is Python, which is a relatively new skill in the data science field that 20 years ago, somebody would not have gone and gotten a degree in,” IBM CHRO Nickle LaMoreaux told Moneycontrol.
“Now, why do I care if you learned Python at an IIT or you taught yourself at night from your home?” she said. “It’s all about whether you have the right skills.”
IBM implemented the ‘skill-first’ approach in the US in 2012 when it removed the four-year college degree requirement from about 50 percent of its jobs. Ten years later, 20 percent of the present IBM US workforce in hardware, software and consulting does not have a college degree.
Whither India Inc?
Does IBM’s strategy highlight a newfound approach among India Inc? Will online and offline certifications will be as important as some full-time degree from a prominent college?
Major companies including Tech Mahindra, thyssenkrupp Industrial Solutions, Godrej & Boyce (G&B) and Merck are open for different kinds of approaches, where both skill and degree hold importance, as they build talent pipeline for the future.
“We continue to focus on skill-based hiring across emerging technologies, leveraging a digital-first strategy to address post-pandemic business challenges,” Harshvendra Soin, Global Chief People Officer and Head - Marketing, TechM, told Moneycontrol.
According to to think tank ORF’s data, 33 percent of companies in India need to hire additional workers owing to the introduction of new technologies. However, a ManpowerGroup report showed that 63 percent of Indian companies reported talent shortages.
G&B has designed over 40 training modules in leadership and functional areas along with a learning repository of more than 510 external courses for employees to make them stay competitive with the industry.
“While building skills and competencies of its employees, we are also conscious of hiring fresh talent from outside with new-age skills and competencies in niche areas and functions,” says Harpreet Kaur, SVP & Head - Corporate Personnel & Admin, G&B.
The pace of change is slow
For most of its requirements, thyssenkrupp Industrial Solutions does treat graduate engineering as the basic qualification. However, there are outliers, and if the company comes across candidates who show promise without this basic qualification: “We have not shied away in hiring them,” says Sonal Singh - EVP & Head -HR and Admin, thyssenkrupp Industrial Solutions India.
A skills-first strategy necessitates re-examining the notion of talent and reversing the conventional talent model, feels Piyush Raj Akhouri, Co-Founder of staffing firm Bridgentech Consulting. “Demonstrated skills are valued over job histories and degrees.”
However, figures show the adoption of the approach is slow. Between 2017 and 2019, US employers reduced degree requirements for 46 percent of middle-skill positions and 31 percent of high-skill positions.
Further, the study highlights that for the job of software quality-assurance engineer, only 26 percent of Accenture’s postings for the position contained a degree requirement. This was 29 percent at IBM. However, Oracle had 100 percent, followed by Intel (94 percent), HP (92 percent), and Apple (90 percent).
Sharing his experience in steps involved during hiring, Subramanyam Reddy, Founder and CEO of edtech firm KnowledgeHut upGrad, says various applicant screening systems are set up to favour traditional education over skills alone.
“The idea stems from the notion that traditional education endows a candidate with skills along with knowledge in their field of study.”
College degrees always matter for headhunters
When various online and offline upskilling platforms emphasise skilling, they somehow convey the message that college degrees have less importance when it comes to hiring. However, leading HR leaders have a special place for formal degrees, moreover from prominent colleges.
“Our robust education system lays a level of foundation that has rigour and depth. Competition starts very early in life and forces Indian parents to focus on providing a good education to their children,” explains thyssenkrupp’s Sonal Singh.
She believes a child who has gone through this rigour is prepared to do well in a high-performing environment of the corporate sector.
As an HR expert, Singh believes it is important that a candidate has a degree from a good institution and cleared significant transition levels like 10th, 12th, graduation or post-graduation without any breaks, and with good marks.
‘Skill-first’ more prevalent in newer industries
Further, some experts believe the ‘skill-first’ approach is more prevalent in newer industries like tech and will take time to catch up in other industries. For instance, owing to the industry Shiv Kumar, HR Head of science and technology company Merck India, operates in, the company must have talent who is “qualified”.
“There are specific areas which require one to hold a valid licence and degree, etc,” he says.
Due to the talent supply being more than the demand earlier, Kumar says the presence of a degree acted as an elimination criterion to ensure minimum “false positives”. “And our work output impacts human lives and progress. Hence, we must minimise ‘false positives’ as much as possible.”
Certification makes you stand out
Though college degrees will always hold value in building a successful life and career, industry experts highlight that today organisations want people to showcase their skills and not just their degrees.
“The main thing to remember is that a college degree no longer guarantees to make the candidate job ready,” says Nikhil Barshikar, Founder & MD of training firm Imarticus Learning.
For instance, someone may have a degree in Data Science, but the company may need someone who understands the base, cloud, and related areas for them to be effective, Barshikar says. “Due to rapid change in tech these days, someone with just a degree will be stuck with a piece of valueless paper when the company rolls out a new version.”
When Asmita Meshram graduated from the University of Mumbai with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science, she launched her career as a web developer. However, she soon realised she was in a field that wasn’t right for her.She had to find a new way forward, and discovering the Google Data Analytics Professional Certificate proved to be the right solution for her.
“I gained many skills and was able to acquire knowledge about the entire lifecycle of a data analytics project. The program not only teaches you about data analytics but also about the responsibilities of being an employee,” says Meshram.
Entry-level professional certificates on Coursera are seeing great traction as impactful means to diversify hiring and increase workplace equity.“Companies are recognising alternative, skill-based credentials to accelerate digital transformation and attract and retain talent,” says Raghav Gupta, MD, India and APAC, Coursera.