(Originally posted in Campaign)
Putting aside the pandemic shift to remote work, career paths have still changed dramatically over the last decade. Just think – in the 2000s we’ve seen the rise of the gig economy, waning job loyalty, diversity and inclusion challenges and the necessity of social media for most brands to grow their customer base. As these new norms have evolved, the world of work has grown to 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 a particular level of talent. Instead, 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 to address.
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 gain access to higher-wage careers. This sea change in education is raising the alarm for many employers who previously had stringent BA-minimum requirements.
These creative fields are learning the truth – degrees aren’t a necessary requirement to be hired at a brand or agency setting. More than that, because of advancements in technology and social media, creatives no longer have to go to a physical school to get an education. But 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 the issues of talent scarcity, lack of diversity, waning creative solutions and more.
The truth about degrees
Earning a degree and being talented were never synonymous. Having removed degree requirements from most of our roles at our agency Movement Strategy, I know first hand that individuals without degrees have experience that goes beyond the classroom and can be applied to real-time, often high-pressure situations – a trait that should be highly valued in the brand and agency worlds. They may also have more work experience than those who spent years in higher education and there’s research that indicates that those without degrees stay in jobs longer and are more productive. In this context, this makes it strange that those without degrees aren’t an obvious choice for those in our industry.
However, it’s also true that these employees can come with some challenges. Those without degrees may lack some of the technical skills and peer support that come with learning in an institution of higher education. Additionally, for positions like those in data and insights, the need for advanced statistical (and statistical software) knowledge means that degrees are probably required. But while completing 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.
Remember, in an age where diversity and inclusivity is a determiner of brand growth, degrees create a major equity issue and barrier. According to 2020 US Census data, approximately 64% of Americans over 25 have no bachelor’s degree, and that number rises to 74% for Black adults and 80% for Hispanic/Latin adults. Beyond the short term DEI 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 those who are deserving.
Brands and agencies need to commit to removing degree requirements from roles that truly do not need them. For example, in roles like graphic design, copywriting, and strategy, degrees cannot be a default demand for consideration. What’s more important is the ability for the candidate to understand the client, audience, and to execute creatively. So, these businesses will have to create better frameworks for judging and nurturing those qualities.
To start, brands and agencies should invest in the partnerships that focus on curating and supporting young talent, via internships, high school programs, or non-traditional training programs. Like our own 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 would involve evaluating talent and skill level through case studies that are equitable to all candidates, and potentially taking it one step further to provide work samples for candidates who are starting their careers.
Lastly, what’s needed is patience and a willingness to allow this new approach to grow and succeed. No doubt, there will be initial growing pains with both talent and employers, 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 the Director of Inclusion & Purpose of social media agency Movement Strategy, leading its DEI committee as well as DEI initiatives and communications for the agency, including DEI goals, priorities, audits, and action items across our work, their internal organization, and marketing.