Skip to content
Subscribe Donate

Skills-Based Hiring Alone Won’t Advance Racial Equity

June 21, 2023

At a Glance

As we celebrate Juneteenth, we must remember that advancing racial equity at every level of the career and employment spectrum, not just the middle, requires a comprehensive approach to hiring that includes skills, degrees, and an employer commitment to eliminating bias in talent management practices.

Michael Collins Vice President
Practices & Centers

In 2020, we launched a new body of work at Jobs for the Future (JFF) focused on advancing racial economic equity. We were responding to the racial reckoning that gripped the nation after George Floyd’s murder, and to the profound health and economic impacts of COVID-19 on Black communities. At the time, one of the country’s highest priorities was getting people back to work. This fueled an increase in calls for employers to embrace skills-based hiring—an approach that emphasizes a person’s skills, not college degrees, as the primary qualification for a job.

As we were building the JFF practice that became the Center for Racial Economic Equity, one of the most immediate challenges we faced was the reality that nearly half of Black adults in the United States were unemployed, and I knew that support for skills-based hiring would need to be a part of our approach to addressing that problem.

But there were elements of skills-based hiring that worried me then—and still do now. Focusing on skills alone could inadvertently create a ceiling for Black economic advancement. We need a more comprehensive strategy that also provides Black people with the support and resources necessary to continue their educations and earn degrees and other high-level credentials. A skills-only approach could limit Black workers to midlevel jobs and close the door on opportunities to pursue careers as leaders who can influence the direction of society.

This Juneteenth, as I reflect on our nation’s ongoing journey toward achieving Black economic equity, I encourage leaders across the worlds of education and work to reframe strategies to expand career opportunities for Black people so that they include not just skills-based hiring but also ongoing learning experiences that advance one’s skills and education in a way that broadens, rather than limits, Black economic advancement.

A Debate With Roots in Reconstruction

There’s a long history of Black people being steered away from college educations and toward skills-based career pathways. During the Reconstruction era, two Black public intellectuals, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, argued opposite sides of that question—Washington for skills and Du Bois for degrees. White people overwhelmingly sided with Washington.

In the 20th century, when mass public schooling became available to Black people, it was primarily in the form of skills training in segregated schools that had less funding than schools for white students. In 1944, the GI Bill offered veterans financial assistance to attend college. But discrimination made it difficult for Black veterans to take advantage of the benefits, so they largely ended up in skills training programs while white veterans went to college. Black people continue to be overrepresented in skills pathways to this day.

The premise of skills-based hiring is that college degrees shouldn’t be required for many midlevel jobs. The pivot to skills-based hiring represents a welcome clawing back of the degree inflation caused by employers adding degree requirements to jobs that hadn’t required a college education in the past—a trend that gained strength during the Great Recession when there were more workers than jobs.

But important nuances about skills-based hiring are lost in the public discourse about how to get ahead in today’s economy. In addition, there are faulty assumptions in the argument for skills-based hiring as a lever for improving racial equity in hiring.

I’m concerned that an overemphasis on skills-based hiring could limit career and economic advancement opportunities for Black people. Here are some of the reasons why.

Skills vs. Degrees: A False Dichotomy

The issue is often presented as an either-or question of “skills vs. degrees,” with advocates of skills-based hiring sometimes portrayed as being anti-degree. This is misleading. Skills and degrees aren’t mutually exclusive. Degree programs can include skills training, and a degree can signal that the holder has certain skills.

And many—but not all—degree pathways offer undeniable advantages. According to a report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, college graduates are more likely to be employed than people who don’t have four-year degrees, and they earn 31% more over a lifetime than people with associate’s degrees and 74% more than people with just a high school diploma.

Skills-based pathways have many advantages and may offer more promising employment opportunities than some degree programs, but they don’t necessarily offer the same economic value as the degree pathways that lead to jobs with the highest pay in fields with proven opportunities for economic advancement. Advocates for skills-based hiring understand this. Many of them have college degrees themselves.

Not All Skills Have the Same Value in the Labor Market

Within the argument for skills-based hiring is the assumption that all skills are equally valuable. But there are huge differences between and among types of skills that can have dramatically different economic value in the job market. And there are racial patterns to who has the skills that are in demand among employers.

Typically, STEM—or science, technology, engineering, and math—skills and credentials lead to more employment opportunities and higher earnings than many other types of skills. White workers, mostly men, are more likely than Black workers to have STEM skills and credentials. They’re also more likely than Black workers to have access to the foundational experiences and resources that prepare people to succeed in STEM careers and education and training programs, including high-quality K-12 learning experiences such as Advanced Placement courses, classes led by highly qualified teachers, high-speed internet, and state-of-the-art technology equipment. Employers are also apt to assume that white workers are more likely than Black workers to have the “employability skills” that complement technical skills.

Skills-Based Hiring Won’t Automatically Close Racial Gaps

There’s an assumption that, because fewer Black people than white people have college degrees, skills-based hiring will advance equity by giving employers access to a broader and more diverse talent pipeline. But this doesn’t hold up.

Black workers with college degrees are still more likely to be unemployed and earn less than their identically credentialed white peers, so it doesn’t follow that transitioning to skills-based hiring will close racial gaps. Despite their obvious labor market value, college degrees don’t close employment and earnings gaps between Black and white workers. What is the evidence that skills will?

A key factor in all of this is racially biased employer talent practices. Studies analyzing the role resumes play in the job application process show clear employer preferences for white workers. The research reveals that candidates with names associated with white people received callbacks at twice the rate as candidates with names associated with Black people—even if their resumes were otherwise identical.

Findings like those make it clear that skills-based hiring alone won’t automatically increase racial equity in the labor market. Employers must go a step further and implement talent practices that eliminate racial bias at scale.

Skills-Based Hiring Alone Won’t Diversify the Executive Ranks

Despite my worries, I’m not saying that skills-based hiring isn’t an important strategy. Combined with equitable talent practices, an approach that emphasizes what people can do, not just the credentials they hold, has the potential to get more Black workers into midlevel jobs. But skills-based hiring won’t diversify the top ranks of organizations. Therefore, it’s incomplete as a strategy for racial equity.

I ultimately urge employers, policymakers, workforce development professionals, and other leaders throughout the learn and work ecosystem to embrace and promote a more comprehensive recruiting, hiring, and career advancement strategy that not only emphasizes skills but also promotes increased college completion rates and includes expanded support for Black business ownership and other wealth generation strategies.

The middle can’t be the top for Black people.