At the age of 17 Latisha Carter became a single mother, putting her hopes of going to college firmly on the backburner. But she was determined to work. Three years later, after having another child, Carter became a nursing assistant, taking after her mother and aunt.

Yet she couldn’t shake her dreams of making it in corporate America.

“I felt like I disappointed my mom,” says Atlanta-based Carter. “I was the youngest kid, then I ended up having kids. I wanted to prove to everyone that I am not a disappointment.”

Latisha Carter

Buoyed by the extensive training on offer, Carter secured a call center role at software company NCR. This built up her industry experience to land a customer service role at software giant Sage in 2000. Carter’s imagined corporate success story was finally a reality and over the next 20 years she catapulted up the ranks to director level, eventually landing a senior role at accounting tech company Xero — all without a college degree.

As a director in corporate America with no university on her resumé, Carter is less of an anomaly than you might think. A recent Harvard Business Review report analyzed more than 51 million jobs posted between 2017 and 2020, and found a marked decrease in the number of employers requesting diplomas. 

This shift towards skills- and attributes-based hiring is gaining momentum in the U.S., making hiring at a growing number of companies more about what you can do than where you went to college. As student debt spirals upward and businesses struggle to find enough workers, the positive impact of skills-based hiring could be enormous for disadvantaged groups, companies and the economy as a whole. 

Skills outweigh diplomas

Job search engine Adzuna recently reviewed over 127,000 resumés uploaded to its site since January 2021. Looking across more than 2,700 job titles to assess the average market value of jobseekers with a degree compared to those without, it found that those without a degree achieved higher salaries than those with a degree in fields like IT, construction safety and chemistry, emphasizing the value of experience over education.

Paul Lewis, Adzuna’s chief customer officer, believes the change is welcome news for those who can’t shoulder the cost of attending college.

“A company that puts emphasis on skills over formal credentials will create a better foundation and culture of values, and a more diverse, well-rounded set of employees that will become a competitive advantage down the line,” says Lewis.

This is a far cry from the mentality that prevailed when Carter was starting out. Back then, she says, not having a degree in a corporate role actively held her back and she felt she had to work significantly harder than her peers to prove herself.

“Specifically, there was a time that a leader had to go to bat for me because I did not have a degree,” she says. “I honestly believe that broke a barrier across the company because he stood up for me to say I had proven myself and fought to ensure the pay was equal or better to someone with a degree. With his belief in me and my belief in myself, I was almost unstoppable after that.”

One of the most significant potential benefits of companies focusing hiring policies around skills rather than educational attainment is the potential it has to close the racial wealth gap.

OneTen is an organization which partners with companies to put one million Black Americans without college degrees into what it calls “family sustaining” careers — those paying $60,000 plus — over the next 10 years. Its goal is to close the unemployment gap between white and Black workers, and see companies make good on their diversity and equality policies.

According to OneTen, 76 percent of Black adults in America don’t have a college degree yet 79 percent of “family sustaining” jobs still require one, resulting in a $143,000 average net wealth difference between white and Black families. Since OneTen launched in 2020 it has helped facilitate over 17,000 hires of self-identifying Black Americans without four-year degrees into “family sustaining” roles across 70 companies.

To reach its goal of one million hires, chief executive Maurice Jones wants the number of partner companies to increase fivefold over the next three years.

“[The requirement for degrees when hiring] is a systemic barrier to folks earning their way into the middle-class American dream, all based on a credential that may have no relevance compared with the skills, attitude and aptitude you bring to a job,” he says.

“You cannot address the wealth gap in our country, which in America largely breaks down along lines of race and place, unless access to quality jobs for more folks is part of the solution. This whole skills-first movement is firmly about addressing the racial wealth gap in this country. If that's not a significant part of your solution, you don't have a solution.”

Carter’s employer Xero is certainly seeing its skills-based hiring approach pay off in terms of creating a more diverse company. In the second half of 2021, the company saw a seven percent increase in racial and ethnic diversity amongst new hires in the U.S. compared with the first half of that year, according to Jana Galbraith, the company’s executive general manager for people experience partnering. In contrast, she says, “historically, hiring based on degree exclusively has perpetuated discrimination.”

And, as in Carter’s case, companies need to be in a position to benefit from people’s determination and tenacity to chase their dreams, whether they have a degree or not.

“When you find someone who’s passionate about the work they're going to be doing, you can bet they're going to be a great colleague,” says Carter. “If we remove the barrier of ‘where did you go to school?’ that creates more opportunities for people who may have taken a non-traditional route.”