Talent? Required. Degrees? Not so much

(Photo credit: Unsplash)
(Photo credit: Unsplash)

Can the creative industries solve their culture, talent and inclusivity problems by relying less on expensive degrees and more on things that matter?

Putting aside the shift to remote work, career paths have changed dramatically over the last decade. We’ve seen the rise of the gig economy, waning job loyalty, diversity and inclusion challenges and social media becoming a necessity for brands to grow their customer bases. 

As these new norms have taken shape, the working world has become more influenced by jobseekers as opposed to employers, creating a growing frustration with a “lack of qualified candidates.” In the creative fields, this has manifested as an accelerated phase in the long-running war for talent between agencies, tech and disruptive startups. 

Education has traditionally played a crucial role in this war. The wisdom was that a degree from a particular university, film or design school was shorthand for talent. This thinking led to untold levels of economic, cultural and creative homogeneity while also undermining the American middle class. The cost of getting the “right” degree skyrocketed, turning debt relief into a national issue that required a presidential intervention

Now, college enrollments have hit a decade-low and there’s been a sharp increase in IT-related boot camps and courses that allow for non-degreed people to access higher-wage careers. This sea change in education is raising the alarm for many employers who previously had stringent BA-minimum requirements. 

Creative fields are learning the truth: Degrees aren’t necessary to get hired at a brand or agency. Because of advancements in technology and social media, creatives no longer have to go to a physical school to get an education. 

This isn’t a creative workforce crisis in the making. In fact, removing degree requirements from most roles could be the answer we’ve been looking for to tackle talent scarcity, lack of diversity, waning creativity and more. 

The truth about degrees

Earning a degree was never synonymous with being talented.

Having removed degree requirements from most of our roles,I know first-hand that individuals without degrees have valuable experience that goes beyond the classroom and can be applied to real-time, high-pressure situations. This is a trait that should be highly valued by brands and agencies. 

They may also have more work experience than those who spent years in higher education. Research indicates that those without degrees stay in jobs longer and are more productive. 

In this context, it’s strange that people without degrees aren’t an obvious choice for our industry. 

It’s also true that employees without degrees can have some challenges. They may lack the technical skills and peer support that come with learning in an institution of higher education. For positions in fields like data and insights, the need for advanced statistical and software knowledge means that degrees are probably required. 

But while getting a degree may indicate that the individual understands what it means to work within a structure, among a team and under specific deadlines, it also creates a problematic culture of homogeneity reflective of higher education – from design schools to business schools and beyond.

In an age where diversity and inclusivity determines brand growth, degrees create a major equity barrier. According to 2020 U.S. Census data, 64% of Americans over age 25 have no Bachelor’s degree. That number rises to 74% for Black adults and 80% for Hispanic/Latin adults. Beyond the short-term DE&I costs of ignoring this talent pool, the long-term consequence is that our industry is actively contributing to systemic, economic hardship by denying opportunities to deserving talent. 

Getting there

It’s time for brands and agencies to remove degree requirements from roles that truly do not need them. In jobs such as graphic design, copywriting and strategy, degrees cannot be a default demand for consideration. What’s most important is the ability for the candidate to understand the client, the audience and to execute creatively. These businesses will have to create better frameworks for judging and nurturing those qualities. 

To start, brands and agencies should invest in partnerships that focus on curating and supporting young talent, via internships, high school programs or non-traditional training programs. Like our partnership with the High Schools of Art & Design, these initiatives serve to expose students to careers that they previously didn’t have access to while also allowing employers to see the breadth of talent firsthand, possibly offering them entry-level opportunities right out of high school. 

Beyond that, businesses should put greater value in assessments, experience and references during the hiring process. This involves evaluating talent and skill through equitable case studies and potentially providing work samples for candidates who are starting their careers.

Patience and willingness will be necessary. No doubt, there will be initial growing pains on both sides. But the benefits cannot be overstated. In fact, they are part of an essential evolution in a world not only embracing new ways of working but a new type of worker within modern businesses.

Adriana Crawford is director of inclusion and purpose at Movement Strategy.

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