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The future of graduate recruitment: what Prosple leadership had to say

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Prosple co-founders Jeff Duncan and Richard McKeon talked about their vision of the future at the 2020 Australian Association of Graduate Employers Conference.

“Big degrees” could end up being just one of many paths to qualifying for graduate jobs, according to Prosple co-founders Jeff Duncan and Richard McKeon. They recently walked through the limitations of traditional degrees, how ‘stacked’ microcredentials could overcome those limitations and where and when we’re likely to see changes in graduate recruitment. 

In this post we’ll summarise the key points, but in case you want to watch the whole presentation, watch the video below. We’ll then finish with questions Jeff and Richard were asked.

Big degrees; bigger costs

The presentation began with an overview of three challenges traditional “big degrees” struggle to address. 

  1. In many industries, degree programs don’t match the pace of change. Computer science degrees exemplify this, with new programming languages coming into vogue year on year.
  2. Degrees are a barrier to recruitment, particularly when it comes to recruiting Indigenous, remote, regional or in other ways underserved students. They’re expensive and hard to access.
  3. Credentials fraud. Despite many employers requiring degrees, only a minor proportion check their candidates’ credentials. 

Even high school students suffer from these challenges. The most reliable indicator a high school student has about an employer’s hiring preferences are the kinds of degrees they hire from. Should a high school student wish to become a strategy consultant, they may decide upon an engineering degree solely because within that 5 or 6 years of study are embedded the qualities these firms seek, as their hiring trends seem to confirm. So students end up learning a vast amount of information irrelevant to their needs. 

Enter microcredentials

According to our current thinking, building a passport of microcredentials (‘stacking’ them) solves all these challenges:

  1. Having targeted microcredentials removes the disconnect between training and real-world skills. It would be possible for job applicants of the future to take short courses in skills precisely relevant to the roles they want to apply for, without worrying their skills will be redundant by the time they finish. Employers can indicate which skills (and thereby credentials) are relevant to each of their positions.
  2. Education would be democratised. By bringing down the cost and time barrier, underprivileged but nevertheless highly capable applicants would have a fair go.
  3. Blockchain-administered, secure badges make each credential transparent and nigh-on immune to fraud. 

This new model lets that aspiring strategy consultant select the skills they need and be job-ready in 5 months instead of 5 years. 

When and where will we see stacked microcredentials?

It’s likely that ‘traditional’ employment pathways (CV + degree) will coexist with new alternatives for years to come before significant changes to the status quo come to pass. 

Regarding where we’re likely to see these changes, tech is an obvious starting point, as that’s where this change is already happening. Companies like Google, Amazon and Apple already offer microcredentials they recognise as job-ready. Google’s hiring managers see one of their $300 short courses as equivalent to a four-year university computer science degree. And when it comes to a tech knowledge gap, creating your own short course can solve it.

But in highly regulated industries, such as medicine or teaching, microcredentials aren’t an adequate solution yet, as credentials for these industries need to be airtight and cautiously maintained. 

Questions and answers

Recruitment strategies are usually heavily influenced by senior leadership who often believe that “big degree” holders are the “best” graduates to hire. These same leaders are often also asking grad recruiters to improve the diversity and inclusion of grad hires. How do we educate the leadership teams that many minorities don’t have equal access to university and that we need to increase accessibility to be truly more diverse and inclusive?

This is definitely a sticking point. Many corporate leaders see the path they took as the right one. If they earned an MBA, they’re more likely to expect the same of their peers. If they didn’t earn an MBA, they won’t be as likely to expect one. “If what we’ve said today works, the proof will be in the pudding”, Richard put it, citing one of Prosple’s top software developers who never had a formal education as an example. If it’s possible to point to someone rising through the ranks who never had a formal education, that will be persuasive.

Do you think, in the future, we might drop the label of "Graduate" in favour of more inclusive terminology (e.g. Junior Talent, Early careers, New careers etc)?

Yes, there will be, but not before a messy period where we’re still figuring out the terms! It’s hard to say what the new norms will be, but at some point those new norms will be established, and with that, new language conventions.

What about the softer skills acquired at uni, the social rites of passage, the life long networks that are created by communal living and study etc... how do these fare in a more transactional world?

Great question. In the US, they see going to college as more than just education - it’s the process of becoming an adult, and that’s important. We think there’s an opportunity here for education providers, like university colleges, to continue providing accommodation. It would then be possible for students working on microcredentials to congregate, get extra tuition, study together and form those important, lasting bonds. There’s also an opportunity for more volunteering, perhaps overseas or in remote and rural locations. The hope is these other ways of gaining life-building experiences will increase in prominence. Employers themselves could even mandate ‘eligible life experiences’ alongside applicable microcredentials to help future applicants.

And all this doesn’t need to be tied up in a degree. If the end-game is building soft skills and life skills, there are better ways to do that than drinking at the uni bar!

Will we see an increase in students being employed directly from high schools and a drop in university student hires?

It’s difficult to say, because it ultimately comes down to the success of this system, which includes the skill-building infrastructure and volunteering we mentioned. But even if the system works, and we see some high schoolers finishing their microcredentials during year 12, they’re not likely to have the same breadth of life experience as a university graduate. If there’s ever a drop in university student hires, it’s more likely to come from students who’ve graduated high school and spent a year volunteering, travelling and living while they do their microcredentials than a 17 year old fresh off the podium.

So if many degrees are becoming irrelevant, is it likely that employers will hire for skills not experience/qualifications?

We think in many industries, they already do. Strategy consulting firms don’t hire engineering graduates because they need to design aeroplanes or circuits, nor do quant traders hire physics PhDs because they love cosmology. These graduates just happen to reliably have the skills they need. Microcredentials could make that fact more transparent.

Where do you see microcreds coming into industries where legally you need a certain qualification to practice, i.e. engineering?

Another great question, but we don’t know the answer. What we do know is we’re seeing this trend in tech partly because tech jobs don’t require a regulated degree in most cases. But when you get closer to something like accounting, we’re actually seeing a divide between ‘bookkeeper’ and ‘accountant’. Even in law, many law firms in the UK, as of 2021, will begin recruiting graduates without law degrees, who will be trained up to pass the bar equivalent through their employer.

Ultimately, it will be up to each industry to decide what level of regulation needs to stay.

How will this impact the structure of graduate programs, ie programs being divided up into streams or discipline-based?

It’s hard to say because it’ll probably come down to each individual company and sector, and how much trust they place in the education of non-traditional candidates. Places like Google may one day have a minimal three-month graduate program, relying on their own microcredentials to teach candidates the job and expose them to different streams. Many graduate programs will likely remain similar, relying on candidates from a combination of traditional pathways and stacked, third-party microcredentials. In heavily regulated industries, we may see no change at all. But really it’s all speculation until we put these ideas to the test.

How do you see these changing traditional sectors which are currently being disrupted i.e. law?

We mentioned the UK earlier, and can see that model working in other parts of the world. But again, it really does come down to individual industry requirements, even for sectors like law that are already adapting. At the very least, we hope to see as many industries as possible adopting additional pathways like stacked microcredentials, provided applicants are able to meet the entry requirements at the end.

What do you think this means for professional bodies across industries such as engineering, accounting, actuarial etc. Do you see them changing their entry requirements for gaining accreditation?

In terms of subject matter entry requirements, these should only change in the interests of each industry’s varied ethical, functional and compliance needs, not because they feel they need to keep up with the times. In terms of how applicants attain these skills, we’d like to see greater flexibility, i.e. ‘either a relevant degree, or this approved set of microcredentials’. If no adequate microcredentials currently exist, we’d hope to see professional bodies working with education providers to create accreditation-worthy courses, or even developing their own.

What continued role will grad recruiters have to support the attraction and selection process if hard and soft skills are measured through a digital passport that can be read by an ATS?

The role of graduate recruiters actually becomes much more important. Rather than relying on broad signals like the completion of a big degree to indicate quality, they’ll be empowered to design pathways that relate to candidates that perform best on the job. There may be less manual CV screening work, but this will be replaced by more scientific endeavours. Smart recruiters will be closely mapping the traits of the best performers in their organisation and developing recruitment pathways designed to attract more of them.

How might this affect applicants - will they have to take on weeks of study before they apply for a job? I guess I'm asking, what's the responsibility of employers for training?

Our current theory is that applicants should benefit from this system. If companies are laying out specific microcredentials that demonstrate the skills they’re looking for, applicants know exactly what they need to stand out, what the total time commitment is, and the cost. But this doesn’t mean applicants need to complete exactly the microcredential recommended. If they’re confident they can demonstrate the skill taught in this or that credential, such as having completed a similar unit during a degree, there’s nothing stopping them from applying. As far as employer responsibility and training goes, this is something we’ll have to play by ear. It may turn out these credentials are highly effective, reducing the need for training, or maybe they’ll end up being less effective. But whatever the outcome, we think the most successful employers will be the ones who can communicate their needs best, be that through the success of their own microcredentials or otherwise.

Should there be micro courses around professional identity, positive digital footprint etc as well?

That would probably be at the discretion of each company. Conscientious companies would be free to include professional identity, digital footprint, professional ethics and social responsibility microcredentials in addition to their other requirements. Ultimately it’s up to employers to decide what they value, and then either they or education providers can meet that demand with tailored microcredentials in those subjects.

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