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The Great Resignation Has Catalyzed The Drive To Ditch The University Degree In Favor Of Skills And Values

Executive Summary

Resetting requirements for jobs, with the importance of degrees and higher education lessened in favor of appropriate skills and talent, is a trend that could hugely benefit both employers and staff over the next ten years, creating a skills-based economy in which all members can thrive to counter the Great Resignation.

How we hire can be limiting. Many recruiters look firstly for a degree-level education and previous experience in the field. The global pandemic has caused many workers to lose their jobs in hospitality and travel, for example, while some employers couldn’t hire quickly enough to fill gaps in their workforce that may have been displaced or chosen to relocate post-COVID.

LinkedIn has reported a 21% increase over the past year in US job postings that advertise skills and responsibilities instead of qualifications and requirements. The number of positions that don't require a college or university degree increased by nearly 40% from 2019 to 2020.

Recruiting those from outside the work community with transferrable abilities, and taking a skills-based approach to recruitment, could remove hurdles for both employer and employee if done correctly.

A Structural Reset

A recent study by the Harvard Business School found that in job announcements for intensive-care and critical-care nurses, the share of postings asking for a bachelor’s degree declined by 12 percentage points between 2019 and 2020, from 35% to 23%. Overall, this pandemic-related reset occurred in roughly 548,000job postings, involving 27% of middle- and high-skill occupations.

Pharma is part of a global macro trend. In the past, many pharma and biotech companies were highly selective and set unrealistic minimum qualifications for open roles because they had an abundance of candidates, said Josh Needle, managing director of Cielo’s Life Sciences division. However, “this employer position also limited their ability to tap into a more diverse talent population that’s truly representative to the patient communities they serve,” Needle told In Vivo. “But with the war for talent, the great resignation, and the lack of available new skills needed for these companies to continue to transform, they now need to expand what ‘good’ looks like when it comes to skills,” he continued.

Recognizing that candidates are in the driver’s seat, pharma organizations are making strategic changes to ensure the candidate experience, employer value proposition, and employer brand are resonating with the evolving marketplace. Life sciences companies are no longer just competing against each other for top talent– they’re up against other industries too, so it’s even more important for them to stand out from the competition. “It’s more about the skills needed to drive the business forward. Diversity hirings also a priority, opening the talent pool to those who may have previously been excluded due to rigorous requirements.” Josh Needle.

Are pharma companies considering skills-based recruitment more than in the past decade? "A hundred percent," said Needle, whose company, Cielo, specializes in talent acquisition strategies. “With the scarcity of talent along with the skills that are needed, many organizations are now looking differently at skills-based recruitment versus needing a degree or even a high school diploma,” explained Needle. “It’s more about the skills needed to drive the business forward. Diversity hiring is also a priority, opening the talent pool to those who may have previously been excluded due to rigorous requirements.”

While skills-based hiring alone does not guarantee diversity, it is an important step in breaking down potential barriers and creating a more inclusive organization.

Recruitment Reflecting Company Philosophy

A company that is transforming its recruitment requirements is Netherlands-based generics company Centrient Pharmaceuticals, thought to be the first generics company to roll out skills-based recruitment.

This restructured recruitment approach was activated for the first time this September as part of a wider diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) agenda. Centrient will no longer require a particular degree or diploma to apply for a role within the company, except for roles where a formal degree is required by law or regulatory assessment.

“This is about following the talent pool, acknowledging that people can learn by doing over time, and it's also being more inclusive in the way you look at your talent,” said Jean-Luc Giraud, Centrient’s chief HR officer.

The company is hoping that this change will broaden internal career opportunities and create opportunities for cross-functional moves, as well as encourage external candidates to apply for roles they may have previously dismissed.

Giraud acknowledges that while the macro trend of demand outweighing candidates in the post-COVID work landscape also applies to Centrient, considering experience, as well as education in a candidate, is a good thing.“The diploma will never replace street smarts such as attitude and pragmatism,” he told In Vivo.

“People can build their skillset over time because they've been doing the job, or a similar type of role and their experience validates that. That's why we decided to look at this situation to a certain extent because of the shortage of resources, but also to acknowledge that you can learn on the job,” he explained.

The company, which manufactures sustainable antibiotics, statins, and antifungals, has a staff of 2,200 and operations based in four continents. It is an important part of the company ethos to allow employees to grow. “We are a midsized company, so people cannot always grow vertically; however, you can broaden exposure by moving horizontally. That's something we want to encourage in the organization, we deeply believe that people should be developed. That's part of the philosophy,” Giraud said.

Not only is skills-based recruitment expected to offer rewarding new careers to those who may have been excluded from applying previously, Giraud explained that managers within the company are happy because it will speed up recruitment, something other companies have been struggling with in a post-COVID landscape.

“From the candidate’s perspective, skills-based recruitment gives them the opportunity and flexibility to enter a new profession or sector that would’ve been difficult in the past due to certain requirements,” said Cielo's Needle. “Organizations are also making candidate engagement a priority, ensuring they have a great experience throughout the hiring process. On the employer side, they’re gaining access to valuable talent skills necessary to successfully build the organization and diversify their workforce, helping them stay ahead in today’s hyper-competitive landscape.”

Of course, skills-based hiring is a savvy business decision that has benefits for the organization, not just for candidates and recruiters. A Bain & Company study showed that employers pay up to 30% more for college graduates, despite observing no difference in job performance between those who did and did not attend college or university.

Skills, Not Schools

With the combined labour shortage left by the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, efforts are being seen in corporate America to move recruitment in a more diverse direction, and pharma is front and centre of this skills-based change.

OneTen is an initiative started by Merck & Co., Inc. and IBM to get a million black workers who lack a college degree hired or promoted by 2030. The aim is to find "family-sustaining" careers through an emphasis on skills-based hiring. So far, more than 50 employers have signed on to the effort, with Merck ex-CEO KenFrazier and Kevin Sharer, former CEO and chairman of Amgen, Inc. on the executive committee, and Johnson &Johnson’s Alex Gorsky on the board of directors. 

Different perspectives inside the organization have an impact. We at Centrient look at how individuals would fit within the company and their values. What we do is driven by purpose. We are improving lives through innovative and sustainable manufacturing

Jean-Luc Giraud, Centrient’s Chief HR, Sustainability and Communication Officer.

Skills-based hiring in life sciences will absolutely continue, said Needle, but we’ll see it morph in the way employees want to engage with their employers. “We’ll also see more project-based/gig hiring, offering what both employers and employees want more of flexibility,” he said.

With the emphasis on skills, not schools increasing in word and deed, it seems the pharma and biotech industries are set for a more diverse and democratic future, even if the current labour market forces their hand. “There is scarcity of resources, and as long as it is an employee market which will not normalize on short notice, there will be a need for pharma companies to develop their way of recruiting and focus more on skills,” said Giraud.

Pharma will benefit from having a loyal workforce, Giraud said, that has been assessed by who they are, their character traits and abilities, and not just the education they received. Having a diverse talent pool is incredibly beneficial, he concluded. "Different perspectives inside the organization have an impact. We at Centrient look at how individuals would fit within the company and their values. What we do is driven by purpose. We are improving lives through innovative and sustainable manufacturing."