Article: IBM’s Tanya Heng talks about dropping degree requirements


IBM’s Tanya Heng talks about dropping degree requirements

One of the biggest changes many big-ticket companies have made to their hiring process is dropping the degree requirements for certain positions. The aim behind this step is to widen the talent pool and focus more on the actual skills required for the job at hand.
IBM’s Tanya Heng talks about dropping degree requirements

Times they are a-changing, crooned Bob Dylan back in 1964. But times havn’t changed as quickly and as often as they have in the last few years. Both employees and employers have been forced to take a step back and reassess everything – from their baseline to their targets and even their hiring process. 

The chronic shortage of talent has been plaguing the tech industry for quite some time now. Lack of talent is currently the number one issue being faced by tech companies not just in the region, but around the globe. 

Considering the hiring environment, a lot of companies are taking a second look at their hiring process and making the required changes to better cater to the changing demands of the workforce. 

One of the biggest changes many big-ticket companies have made is dropping the degree requirements for certain positions. The aim behind this step is to widen the talent pool and focus more on the actual skills required for the job at hand. 

In a chat with PeopleMatters, Tanya Heng, Vice President of HR, IBM Asia Pacific, spoke about the changing work landscape and what are some of the changes IBM is implementing to widen its talent pool. 

1) What prompted IBM to let go of the degree requirement?
10 years ago, we were staring at a shortage of skilled tech employees, and noticed the half-life of skills shortening. Tech talent shortages were an issue in most markets during that time and even now. So even if four-year colleges continued to admit and grow students at today's rate, the number of qualified applicants is never going to catch up with the demand, at least in the short to medium term. And it's apparent employees need to constantly re-up their skills as well. 

2) How did you approach the problem of shortage of skilled tech workers?

We approached the problem in two ways. The first was looking at the requirements of our roles. When you break down what people do every day, whether it's software development, security, or artificial intelligence, you must ask if that role needs a four-year degree or if it's a set of skills that are needed. And if it is skills, maybe people are getting them outside of the college or in shorter periods of time, like in coding boot camps. When you think about it, skills are often what you need, not degrees. The second part was to redouble our internal efforts on training. We started bringing in candidates who may not have had the exact perfect profile for the job description but had maybe four out of the five skills. That made us think about how they could get that fifth skill and how quickly. That's where ways to quickly upscale candidates come in place, things like structured apprenticeship programmes.

3) Moving forward, what kind/level of jobs will not need a graduate degree? Do you see this list growing in the future? 

The list is growing. A lot of people assume non-degree roles are entry-level roles. That is not the case. There are certainly opportunities at the entry-level, particularly for somebody who might be changing careers, but we're making sure the ladder is open to all. Of course, some professions obviously require certifications. But not all roles require a degree. That's not to say degrees aren't needed anymore – this is not about pitting graduates against non-graduates. This is about opening the aperture to finding skills from whatever backgrounds people have. For me, getting a four-year degree was the best way to learn skills. But it is not the only way.

4) What is IBM’s primary emphasis when evaluating a candidate during the hiring process? If educational qualifications are not used as an initial filter, what other criteria do recruiters and hiring managers use to initially screen candidates?

It depends on the role and function that we are hiring for. To do this, we certainly have to review and rewrite job descriptions to ensure they are open, inclusive, and skills-based. This will help us in finding and evaluating the right candidates. At IBM, you're not allowed to conduct an interview or post a job unless you're certified in Select for IBM training. Even if your entire team quit yesterday, you cannot post a job to replace them if you're not certified. Part of that training is to reinforce skills over degrees and eliminate some of the bias. Big companies get thousands of applicants a day, so weeding out anybody who doesn't have a four-year degree simplifies the process. That's a built-in bias and requiring a degree to unlock the door is the wrong approach to talent. If you're interviewing a retail store manager, for instance, you need to know which questions to ask to see if they have the right skills.

5) What should candidates be ready for?

It all comes down to the skills that you have, the ability and the propensity for you to learn, a curious mind, and the ability to handle the transition.

6) What has IBM’s takeaway been since the implementation of your new policy? 

For any business to meet the challenges of the ever-changing world, it’s got to constantly reinvent itself - everything but its beliefs. If you stop reinventing, it will be a challenge to remain sustainable in the long term. At IBM, we have a few key areas that we are continuously improving. And one area where IBM has been focusing our attention is identifying skills needed from future talent, de-emphasizing college degrees, and instead prioritizing certain capabilities. We believe that as long as people have the right skills regardless of how they got them, it is important they also have access to jobs.

7) How do you view your new policy from the lens of the heavy cultural emphasis on educational qualifications in the region?

When we look at the state of hiring today everywhere, even in countries where a college degree becomes a norm or a requirement, we know many talented individuals in the market have the knowledge, skills, and abilities companies are looking for, but the system that we have doesn’t work well for applicants or employers. We need a modernized system where learners’ credentials are portable, verifiable, and use common frameworks making them valued and accessible to employers and academic institutions. That is why we are committed to investing in the future of work and a large focus is on underrepresented communities.

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Topics: Recruitment, Training & Development

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