Professional Development
DEI / Hiring / Workplace culture

When looking to create more inclusive hiring practices, this DC nonprofit says to ditch the degree requirements

Opportunity@Work's Cristian Sirera breaks down how the tech industry can open up its applicant pool to the 71 million Americans in the workforce without a college degree. "If there's one sector that can figure out," he said, "it's the tech sector."

Photo courtesy of Opportunity@Work.

This editorial article is a part of Racial Equity in Tech Month of's editorial calendar. This month’s theme is underwritten by Verizon 5G. This story was independently reported and not reviewed by Verizon before publication.

One year after numerous corporate pledges were made to increase diversity and inclusion, many can agree there’s still work to be done.

Across the board, increasing diversity in hiring was a key focus of many of the promises made that we’re still largely awaiting the results of. And while some say it’s too early to see the effects of pledges made last year, one D.C. nonprofit has a pretty simple solution to get the ball rolling on major change: Remove the four-year degree requirement in tech job postings.

Opportunity@Work is a downtown D.C.-based nonprofit that’s attempting to rewire the industry and create opportunities for the 71 million people in the U.S. without college degrees, also known as STARs. By partnering with corporations and organizations, Opportunity@Work helps companies reevaluate their hiring practices to make job postings and opportunities in tech within reach for STARs, which stands for skilled through alternative routes. STARs could be young workers who elected not to attend college, those with tech certificates or associate’s degrees or people that have worked their way up at a company for many years. It also could be those who have always wanted to be in tech or are looking to change industries.

Whoever they may be, they’re a crucial group to think about as companies attempt to increase diversity in tech. According to Opportunity@Work data, 50% of Black workers, 44% of Latinx, 31% of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and 43% of veterans are STARs. This means that by including a four year degree requirement in job postings, employers are largely cutting their applicant pools for diverse groups in half, and ignoring a huge portion of the workforce that could be filling open roles.

Cristian Sirera. (Courtesy photo)

“When you put in a four-year degree in a job posting, you’re saying goodbye to [50%] of that pipeline…you just keep chipping away and you’re left with a very familiar, very small pipeline, and then you’re wondering, where’s the rest of my diversity?” said Cristian Sirera, senior manager of corporate partnerships at Opportunity@Work.

Already, there’s plenty of work being done to prepare young BIPOC students for tomorrow’s workforce and offer early access to skills like coding and encourage college degrees. But Sirera noted that it’s vital not to overlook STARs when trying to increase diversity in the tech industry. He said there’s a multitude of workers currently in the industry with the skills and experience necessary for open roles, including those that have spent decades at the same company, that are getting left out of applicant pools because of it. And when those STARs do end up changing jobs and companies, he said, they’re frequently forced to take a pay cut because of their lack of degree.

“When you train 20 people to do something and then they have the certificate, that’s great. You’ve controlled that pipeline and that learning curve,” Sirera said. “But it doesn’t mean that that person is more or less ready than someone who’s done it organically.”

Sirera, for one, doesn’t think that organizations can meet workforce diversity goals, including those set last June, without hiring STARs in addition to those with degrees.

“If you want to increase those numbers, it’s going to have to come from all different places…the only way that organizations can succeed is if they look at a holistic approach,” Sirera said. “We need to get the folks who have the experience but may not have the four-year education into these roles.”

But when it comes to hiring, many hit the four-year degree wall when searching for jobs, meaning it’s up to the tech companies to make their hiring practices more inclusive. One problem for many STARs, Sirera said, is the language used in job postings that makes it difficult to apply alternate work experience to openings. Many, he said, have no idea what tech jobs have to do with other work skills unless they’re already in the sector. He said companies need to decide what skills they really need and want for someone in the role, and make it friendly to those without four-year degrees. On top of removing the degree requirement, he said employers should think about whether or not workers could be trained on a skill after hiring and find ways to make postings more relevant to people with outside skills.

We need to get the folks who have the experience but may not have the four-year education into these roles.

“STARs are never going to come to these job openings and say, ‘You know what, look at these 17 things that I think you need here and looking at my experience as a customer service representative with some light tech experience, I think I could do this job. Let me apply even though I see seven things that don’t align with my experience,'” Sirera said.

For companies that use software to weed out candidates, making postings more STAR-friendly also means updating it to not discount candidates without degrees and focus on additional skills.  Opportunity@Work itself actually developed a platform for its partners that uses software to translate postings into a set of skills that can be weighed against the skills of the STARs.

As a space known for innovation and problem solving, Sirera isn’t overly concerned about whether or not the tech industry can make job postings more STAR-friendly.

“If there’s one sector that can figure out, with us and with other partners, how we can get 70 million people that are being left out into the conversation and into these career pathways so you have bigger pipelines and these STARs have better opportunities, it’s the tech sector,” Sirera said. “It’s a sector that has proven that they’re creative and they can tackle big questions and get weird with it and try things and redesign. That’s the tech sector.”

Series: Racial Equity in Tech Month 2021

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