A four-year bachelor’s degree has long been the first rung to climbing America’s corporate ladder.
But the move to prioritize skills over a college education is sweeping through some of America’s largest companies, including Google, EY, Microsoft, and Apple. Strong proponents say the shift helps circumvent a needless barrier to workplace diversity.
“I really do believe an inclusive diverse workforce is better for your company, it’s good for the business,” Ginni Rometty, former IBM CEO, told Fortune Media CEO Alan Murray during a panel last month for Connect, Fortune’s executive education community. “That’s not just altruistic.”
Under Rometty’s leadership in 2016, tech giant IBM coined the term “new collar jobs” in reference to roles that require a specific set of skills rather than a four-year degree. It’s a personal commitment for Rometty, one that hits close to home for the 40-year IBM veteran.
When Rometty was 16, her father left the family, leaving her mother, who’d never worked outside the home, suddenly in the position to provide.
“She had four children and nothing past high school, and she had to get a job to…get us out of this downward spiral,” Rometty recalled to Murray. “What I saw in that was that my mother had aptitude; she wasn’t dumb, she just didn’t have access, and that forever stayed in my mind.”
When Rometty became CEO in 2012 following the Great Recession, the U.S. unemployment rate hovered around 8%. Despite the influx of applicants, she struggled to find employees who were trained in the particular cybersecurity area she was looking for.
“I realized I couldn’t hire them, so I had to start building them,” she said.
The kids ‘could do the work’
In 2011, IBM launched a corporate social responsibility effort called the Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) in Brooklyn. It’s since expanded to 11 states in the U.S. and 28 countries.
Through P-TECH, Rometty visited “a very poor high school in a bad neighborhood” that received the company’s support, as well as a community college where IBM was offering help with a technology-based curriculum and internships.
“Voilà! These kids could do the work. I didn’t have [applicants with] college degrees, so I learned that propensity to learn is way more important than just having a degree,” Rometty said.
Realizing the students were fully capable of the tasks that IBM needed moved Rometty to return to the drawing board when it came to IBM’s own application process and whom it was reaching. She said that at the time, 95% of job openings at IBM required a four-year degree. As of January 2021, less than half do, and the company is continuously reevaluating its roles.
For the jobs that now no longer require degrees and instead rely on skills and willingness to learn, IBM had always hired Ph.D. holders from the very best Ivy League schools, Rometty told Murray. But data shows that the degree-less hires for the same jobs performed just as well. “They were more loyal, higher retention, and many went on to get college degrees,” she said.
Rometty has since become cochair of OneTen, a civic organization committed to hiring, promoting, and advancing 1 million Black individuals without four-year degrees within the next 10 years.
If college degrees no longer become compulsory for white-collar jobs, many other qualifications—skills that couldn’t be easily taught in a boot camp, apprenticeship program, or in the first month on the job—could die off, too, University of Virginia Darden School of Business professor Sean Martin told Fortune last year.
“The companies themselves miss out on people that research suggests…might be less entitled, more culturally savvy, more desirous of being there,” Martin said. Rather than pedigree, he added, hiring managers should look for motivation.
That’s certainly the case at IBM. Once the company widened its scope, Rometty said, the propensity to learn quickly became more of an important hiring factor than just a degree.