Parents’ Day at college doesn’t tend to generate much news. But in the most media-covered Parents’ Day-related event in recent memory, the world’s richest dad took advantage of his MIT-proximate hotel for a liaison with his mistress only hours after the rest of the family had left and his son was back on the MIT campus. Jeff Bezos’ marriage-busting affair with Extra special correspondent Lauren Sanchez and Parents’ Day rendezvous got a lot of attention and will yield the world’s richest divorcée in novelist MacKenzie Bezos. But keep in mind that MacKenzie isn’t the only Parents’ Day victim. Sanchez was also married (albeit loosely, to a Hollywood agent). Which reminds me of the old Hollywood adage: If you’re going to lose your wife to another man, do it right by losing her to the world’s richest man.
Showing up at Parents’ Day to support your family while simultaneously undermining your family (and doing so at an elite university) is an apt metaphor for America’s employers. Because employers are also leading a double life: signifying near-unlimited potential for employment and career advancement while simultaneously limiting opportunity in a socially unproductive way.
Active or passive job seekers who visit Indeed or another leading job site may be forgiven for thinking the world is their oyster. Indeed alone lists nearly 4 million jobs, including close to a million making over $75k. Overall, America has about 7 million unfilled jobs, and employers increasingly say they’re desperate for talent. Free meals are spreading from Silicon Valley to other sectors. More companies are allowing employees to work from home. Employers like Aetna and PwC are offering to pay off student loans. Employers in the burgeoning cannabis industry are offering employee discounts, and even establishing “breakrooms… where people can use their medicine in the middle of the day, if needed.” Desperate times call for desperate measures, Indeed!
At the same time, employers express willingness to change hiring practices. In a recent Robert Half survey of 2,200 CFOs, over half said they are expanding their search for talent to new geographies and considering college students or recent graduates for roles that historically weren’t open to them. Of course, employers have always talked a good game. Five years ago, Lumina Foundation, in association with Gallup, surveyed America’s business leaders and 71% affirmed they’d consider hiring a candidate without a degree over someone with a degree.
If that was true five years ago, it should be gospel today. The economy is digitizing rapidly. Jobs that didn’t used to involve hardware and software now require frequent, if not constant, digital engagement. According to Brookings, only 41 million American jobs still don’t require significant digital skills; nearly 100 million do. Two thirds of the jobs created in the last decade require either high or moderate digital skills.
As many of these digital jobs are just being invented – a product of newly invented technologies – there’s less value in asking for degrees or experience. But despite employers’ supportive language, that’s not what we see. An increasing percentage of entry-level digital jobs demand specific digital experience. And Burning Glass famously found that in hiring software developers, tech companies are more likely to require degrees than companies in other industries (e.g., retail, healthcare), and Silicon Valley tech companies are the worst: only 2% of their software developer positions don’t explicitly demand a bachelor’s or master’s degree.
I don’t blame the tech industry or even Silicon Valley. I chalk it up to this: the more desirable the position, the more lucrative the opportunity, the more likely employers are to abandon progressive credos and resort to reactionary hiring practices like degree or experience requirements. And why not? When there’s a line out the door and around the block, a cover charge is an easy solve.
One problem is that lots of talented candidates can’t afford the cover charge, and employers may not be hiring the top performers they’re seeking. In baseball parlance, companies want employees who consistently hit triples, but they’re effectively limiting the best opportunities to candidates who were born on third base. To mix sports metaphors, this is an own goal: employers get what they deserve.
But the casualties that affect all of us are diversity and social mobility. Whites earn bachelor’s and advanced degrees at a rate that’s 50% higher than African-Americans, and more than double Hispanics; students from top-quartile income families earn bachelor’s degrees at a rate that’s more than 5x students from the bottom-quartile. And guess which candidates are more likely to attain relevant work experience for the best jobs in the industries of the future? (Hint: not candidates who most need a leg up.)
But the salt in the wound is the hypocrisy that springs from the gap between the promise of opportunity and the reality of inaccessibility. This hypocrisy creates what the UK Labour Party MP Paul Sweeney called in last week’s Brexit debate “economic alienation,” which “has caused many of the problems and anger in the UK.”
Few employers talk the opportunity game better than Amazon. Recognizing the scale of its fulfillment centers – now over 125,000 full-time, hourly employees in the U.S. – Amazon has ramped Career Choice, a workforce training program for fulfillment center employees. Amazon partners with local colleges to offer a select number of certificate programs where there are career opportunities both within Amazon, and in the region. Career Choice runs programs in transportation, healthcare, skilled trades, and technology in purpose-built classrooms at fulfillment centers and pays up to 95% of the cost (up to $12k in total). These programs currently operate at 35 sites and enroll over 10,000 Amazon employees. The goal is to enroll 20,000 by next year.
Amazon has also pioneered AWS Academy, Amazon-authored curriculum on cloud technologies that are made available to colleges and universities (and community colleges in particular). AWS Academy reports dozens of community colleges have integrated the cloud curriculum into existing certificate and associate degree programs, or designed new cloud computing certificates.
But don’t expect Amazon to hire too many Career Choice or AWS Academy graduates for its own good jobs. A review of Amazon’s job postings reveals an enterprise as focused on degree and experience requirements as any other. Virtually all tech jobs – even jobs that are clearly entry-level – are posted with both degree and experience requirements. Business analyst, sales, marketing, creative, and logistics positions are no different. Even many management positions at fulfillment centers require bachelor’s degrees (although some offer the alternative of 2-5 years of Amazon experience, so there’s hope for Career Choicers interested in sticking around the warehouse).
While Amazon has received praise for an interview process that’s heavy on problem solving and technical interviewing, the top of its hiring funnel stifles the opportunity it professes to promote. Anyone who has spent any time inside large enterprises won’t have a hard time understanding why. It’s not malice, but rather the difficulty of changing risk averse hiring practices (which can sometimes require changing hiring and HR leadership). Nonetheless, if Amazon’s first two strikes have been limiting opportunity by ethnicity and income, when it chose to create 50,000 good new jobs in “winner” cities like New York and Washington, DC, it limited opportunity by geography and struck out.
The world’s most valuable company shouldn’t be startled by the social and political instability we are experiencing. IBM’s Ginni Romety isn’t, which explains her relentless evangelism for “new collar” jobs, and her company’s many efforts to build momentum for tech apprenticeships, including the new Consumer Technology Association Apprenticeship Coalition announced earlier this month at CES. This week at Davos, Romety challenged her fellow CEOs: employers need to venture beyond hiring solely from top-ranked universities, and it’s necessary to “change your paradigm of hiring.”
Some employers, like the world’s largest asset manager, are just having their prise de conscience now. Last week, Larry Fink, CEO of the BlackRock, advised his fellow CEOs “to wade into sensitive social and political issues – especially as they see governments failing to do so effectively.” Romety’s warning is even starker: “If we don’t fix this issue… right now, at the rate it’s moving, you will have unrest.”
Like Amazon, BlackRock should look in the mirror and realize that shifting hiring policies and processes away from pedigrees and degrees is not only their biggest opportunity, but a fundamental step they must take. Because while hypocrisy at MIT Parents’ Day can break families, hypocrisy in hiring can break nations.