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Employers Reconsider College Degree Requirements in Post-Pandemic Economic Recovery

Opening for business (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photography Office)

The pandemic has produced both soaring unemployment in New York City and a host of booming industries hungry for employees. Business leaders and the young administration of Mayor Eric Adams, alike, are looking to spend significant resources to connect candidates to jobs in traditional and emerging sectors. But executives are beginning to see one long-time driver of economic inequality as a particular barrier to tapping New York's 250,000-strong unemployed workforce: the college degree requirement.

Mayor Adams, a Democrat, has made workforce development a central component of his effort to steer the city out of the economic crisis, create upward mobility, and empower communities of color often left behind. While employment in the city has improved since the worst days of the pandemic shutdown in 2020, it still lags behind the state and national rates. Core industries like tourism, food service, and in-person retail have been hit hard while a number of burgeoning sectors – like tech, life sciences, and renewable energy – have seen runaway growth.

"A major goal of the mayor's…is to make sure that we are in fact connecting New Yorkers to quality jobs and to the types of skills training and opportunities that are needed," said Maria Torres-Springer, the deputy mayor for economic and workforce development, at a recent public talk.

"They've always been needed but, given what we're facing post-pandemic, are extremely urgent," she added. Her remarks followed an expert panel Wednesday focused on employers' role in workforce development, hosted by Accenture, Google, and the Center for an Urban Future at Accenture's midtown offices.

A four-year college degree is a near-ubiquitous requirement for moderate- and high-pay jobs. While a number of workforce training and career pathway models focus on underrepresented communities, only 20% of Hispanic New Yorkers and 27% of Black New Yorkers ages 25-64 have a bachelor's degree, largely barring them en masse from entry into good jobs – even after receiving training. That's compared with 45% of Asian residents and 64% of white residents.

The degree screen has contributed to workforce inequality across sectors for decades. According to a new report from Center for an Urban Future, a research and advocacy group focused on economic mobility, while 22% of the city's workforce in 2020 was Black, Black people made up less than 10% of employees in the securities, advertising, publishing, and tech industries.

"You can have all the competence and skills and…just never get hired," said Jukay Hsu, founder and CEO of Pursuit, a tech-skills training provider, during the panel.

Before taking office, Adams added "workforce development" to the deputy mayor's title to emphasize its centrality in his agenda, and in economic development more broadly. In the economic recovery "blueprint" spearheaded by Torres-Springer and released in March, the administration set goals to align public and private workforce development programs, invest in collateral support services, K-12 and higher education, adult education, digital literacy, and worker protections. While much of the plan reflects campaign promises – like developing CUNY-employer career pipelines, and a one-stop-shop jobs and training portal – though many of the details around implementation have yet to come.

For example, in his executive budget released toward the end of April, Adams included $33 million for the Department of Education "to launch new career pathways programs starting this September focused on high-growth sectors like health care and technology." How that money will ultimately be spent, if approved by the City Council, remains to be seen.

But building up the city's talent base does not, on its own, address long-standing discrimination against women and people of color in the workplace.

"If [we] focus just on the skills gap, what we all I believe fail to fully recognize is that there is a historic intergenerational set of barriers that are faced by New Yorkers, people of color in particular, older people, people with disabilities, the justice involved, just to name a few," said Torres-Springer.

The administration's approach to workforce development, while still nascent, is focused on building partnerships with employers and job trainers in growing sectors, and connecting career pathways to real estate-based economic development projects.

That means making "the types of connections that are needed so that New Yorkers, our young people, CUNY graduates, adults, can benefit from the jobs we hope will come from those investments," she said of recent advancements in off-shore wind and life sciences projects.

Torres-Springer didn't address the degree divide directly. But asked how the city can encourage alternate pathways like apprenticeships, she said: "It always starts with the kind of deep listening with employers to get at the root of why isn't there more, why aren't those programs bigger, why aren't those programs more enduring, how do we bring more employers to the table?"

According to Shanika Hope, Google's director of tech education, employers look at a four-year college degree as a "proxy" for career readiness. "That's an important signal but there are other signals and pathways that we need to explore," she said.

Accenture, Google, and other large companies have been employing to varying degrees apprenticeships, paid internships, and on-the-job training to give potential employees the requisite experience outside of the traditional college experience.

According to Google's 2021 annual reporting, only 4% of its U.S. employees are Black and only 6% are Latino. Roughly half are white and 42% are Asian. Only a third of its U.S. employees are women. Google has over 12,000 full-time employees in New York State.

A few years ago, Accenture did an internal study of its hiring needs. It found half of its North American jobs could be done by a person with no college degree, according to Stuart Henderson, the company's senior managing director overseeing the Northeast.

"That's a pretty extraordinary number for a place which spends a lot of time fighting for the very best people coming out of the very best schools," he said. "It was a big wake-up call for all of us."

Accenture set a goal this year to hire 20% of all new employees this year through its apprenticeship program. A majority of participants come from communities of color, Henderson said.

Hsu raised concerns that this type of "backdoor" entry into the workforce creates a subordinate tier of employment that helps companies meet diversity goals while perpetuating racial and gender inequality.

"I think that, oftentimes, these terms and those apprenticeships aren't very meaningful and they're more optics than actual substance," Hsu said. "And I think that's a dangerous path to go down."

It's critical that these opportunities do not become "a second system by which people are entering the company, where they're contractor jobs, not full-time jobs, low-paying jobs, without benefits," he said. "They aren't real jobs."

Lisette Nieves, president of the Fund for New York City and author of multiple books on career readiness, countered that notion by pointing out that the traditional entry into companies is steeped in privilege. Apprenticeships offer another foot in the door. "There has to be multiple doors into a company and the one-door myth is problematic," she said.

In Accenture's case, Henderson claimed the apprenticeships were meaningful because they had buy-in at the most senior level (from Julie Sweet, the chair and CEO), paid market wages, and often led to full-time jobs.

The panelists agreed there need to be industry-wide reevaluations of job requirements. For Hope, of Google, "that's a long game" that will require changes in internal hiring practices and cross-sector collaboration. 

"When you go and look at a lot of Google job postings, we talk about things like 'the equivalent.' We're not there yet," Hope said. "We're really trying to be more intentional, but there is more work that has to be done."

Disparities in STEM graduation rates also means fewer women are able to take advantage of the growth in new sectors, like technology.

"The participation of women in the graduating classes of computer science over the last 30 years has gone down dramatically," said Judith Spitz, founder of a workforce development organization for women in tech called Break Through Tech. In 1985, women made up 37% of students graduating in computer science, she said, a rate that has since been cut in half. The result is about 1 in 100 women with degrees going into a tech-related field.

She talked about the importance of credential-building outside the four-year degree with models like the "sprinternships" she runs – a combination of rapid career development workshops and three-week paid internships – to help women get their foot in the door and build their resumes.

The Adams administration is looking to make major investments in CUNY's career readiness programing, which Torres-Springer called an "undertapped" resource. The largest urban public university system, CUNY serves one of the most diverse student bodies, with a third of students born outside the mainland United States and half of students coming from households with annual incomes below $30,000. CUNY, while under-resourced, has proven to be a major driver of socioeconomic upward mobility for New Yorkers. Efforts are ongoing, including from Center for an Urban Future and the City Council, to help get more CUNY enrollees to the finish line of a degree.

But investments in CUNY, alone, will not be enough to overcome institutional discrimination. That will require a concerted effort within companies to change hiring practices and intentional public policy to lower barriers, according to several of the panelists.

"Even the talented students that have the credentials are not getting hired when they're from public universities," Nieves said.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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