More employers open to ditch degree-based hiring, but candidates unaware of other routes to work, studies find

Responding to the apparent recruitment mismatch, experts say more needs to be done to highlight alternate pathways for school leavers

Nirat.pix/EyeEm/Getty Images

Employers are increasingly willing to recruit candidates based on soft skills, but 40 per cent of young people still plan to attend university to secure a job, separate pieces of research have revealed.

A new study from Indeed found that three-quarters (74 per cent) of employers are less interested in university degrees than a decade ago, with 81 per cent putting in more effort with new starters if they display the attitudes they want.

Furthermore, Indeed’s data revealed that 87 per cent of employers favour a positive work attitude over qualifications in an entry-level job, and value attributes such as a candidate’s passion, work ethic and willingness to learn.

Number of job adverts hits record high for 2022, data shows

Benefits of zero-hours contracts outweigh the downsides, research finds

Three-quarters of jobseekers would drop out of lengthy recruitment processes, survey reveals

However, figures released by City & Guilds this week show that four in 10 young people in the UK still plan to go to university, despite a seeming step-change in what employers say they will assess them on, and the fact that only 29 per cent of UK jobs require a graduate skill level.

Adding to the confusion for students, who are due to receive their A-level results tomorrow (18 August), while Indeed’s survey revealed many organisations are more willing to assess candidates based on attitudes or softer skills, the CIPD’s recent Employer views on skills policy in the UK report found that 57 per cent of employers still mainly look for degrees or postgraduate qualifications when recruiting.

In light of the research, experts are calling for more to be done to show school leavers alternate pathways to work. 

Get more HR and employment law news like this delivered straight to your inbox every day – sign up to People Management’s PM Daily newsletter

Alia Al-Doori, managing director of Pearl Comms, said school leavers needed better education around what other options exist: “This must come from both businesses and educators. They need to take the time to go into schools and talk about different industries and job roles.”

Currently, this doesn’t appear to be happening. Indeed’s stats show that half of students (55 per cent) are still confused about what choice to make regards their post-school future, and 24 per cent are not aware of other options outside of higher education or university – despite 74 per cent saying they would go into an entry-level job if they knew a degree wasn’t necessary for getting hired.

Part of the solution to this predicament should be better employer understanding of what they need to hire for as well as application of more nuanced recruitment methods, which then could unlock benefits such as greater diversity and inclusivity, suggested Paul Farrer, founder of recruitment firm Aspire. “Employers need to understand what they are recruiting for, and which competencies and soft skills and values or behaviours they want,” he said, adding that “it wasn’t long ago that a head of graduate recruitment in a well-known corporate told me they still use degree levels as a blunt tool to reduce applications to a manageable number, agreeing it wasn’t inclusive but purely pragmatic”.

Lizzie Crowley, senior skills adviser at the CIPD, added that these soft skills will be necessary for future organisational and individual success and adaptability, but said it cannot just be recruitment practices that change to accommodate a new approach. “Employers also need to rethink how they support their people to develop these essential/soft skills across all areas of the business,” she said. 

“This means supporting employees to understand their soft skill strengths and development areas, empowering line managers to support employee development, targeted training, mentoring and coaching, and opportunities to practice and develop these skills in the flow of work.”

Done successfully, Dr Nancy Doyle, chief research officer at Genius Within, said this can improve both the inclusivity and culture of a workplace: “Many neurodivergent and disabled young people have struggled with school because the rigid format and dependency on literacy takes over.

“However, growing up with a disability also lends itself to developing problem-solving skills, creativity, resilience and flexibility, and the workplace can be a very healing place for those who found school constrictive.”

While Dr Scott Hurrell, senior lecturer in human resource management/organisational behaviour at the University of Glasgow, agreed that hiring for soft skills allows a candidate to be assessed on a more holistic basis, he added that there are still issues with this approach that employers need to be wary of. “Many of the 'soft skills' that employers look for are not necessarily skills at all, but positive attitudes,” he said. “These can be used to the detriment of new starters, such as expecting them to work around the clock or take care of their own development. 

“As a result, it is likely that a 'good' hiring programme looks for a mixture of these 'harder' and 'softer' elements while being mindful of the characteristics and social backgrounds of favoured candidates, to reduce bias.

“Managers should also question whether they are really looking for 'skill' or someone who will over-work.”