Employers Favor Career Training Beyond College, New Survey Finds

Over 80% of employers agreed that alternatives to college education will be key to getting workers career-ready in the future.

January 6, 2022 · Updated on January 6, 2022

Employers Favor Career Training Beyond College, New Survey Finds
Opinion & Analysis
Photo by Tom Werner / DigitalVision / Getty Images

  • A new BestColleges study finds growing support for alternatives to the four-year degree.
  • Employer preferences are changing fast, with the majority open to non-college career prep.
  • Vocational training can supplement, rather than replace, college experiences.

There was a time when a bachelor's degree was considered a one-way ticket to a white-collar job and lifelong economic security. But between tough job market competition and rapidly advancing technology, a college degree just doesn't carry the same weight.

Traditional college programs have caught flak for failing to adapt to changing market demands. Business leaders report labor shortages and a paucity of skills in college recruits. According to BestColleges' 2021 Alternative Education Pathways Report, 85% of business leaders surveyed think that alternative education pathways are a viable alternative to college and could help address workforce skill gaps.

In-demand skills take refreshing, and workers increasingly develop those skills outside ivy-covered walls. Modern paths to employment include technical and vocational schools, bootcamps, certificate programs, apprenticeships, and on-the-job training. Even as non-college career prep proliferates, however, there's a lingering fondness for college degrees.

According to a 2021 BestColleges survey, 85% of business leaders think that alternative education pathways are a viable alternative to college.

The BestColleges report, which surveyed almost 2,500 adults and 1,000 business leaders in the U.S., found that while just 40% of business leaders said that college graduates are prepared to succeed in their first job after graduation, 60% said a college degree is important for long-term career success.

College grads may be less than workforce-ready, but they are still presumed to hold certain soft skills, developed through the many foundational courses in a bachelor program's core curriculum. College and career prep needn't be an either/or proposition: Practical training can supplement traditional college degrees. Workers who hold bachelor's degrees or higher can enroll in trade programs to retrain or upskill.

Employers' Evolving View of Alternative Education

When asked for their views on how well college prepares students for the workforce, just 40% of business leaders said college graduates are prepared to succeed in their first job. A nearly equal share (37%) said grads are not equipped to succeed.

The stop-gap is career training. The vast majority of business leaders surveyed (81%) agreed that alternatives to college education will be key to getting workers career-ready in the future. And the future, according to employers, is here: Around two-thirds (68%) agreed that more and more jobs do not need bachelor's degrees and 64% said it's time to remove college degree requirements from some jobs.

Almost two-thirds (64%) of business leaders surveyed 64% said it's time to remove college degree requirements from some jobs.

Employers are more aware than the general public of the growing importance of alternative education pathways. While just 33% of Americans agreed that the overall perception of college alternatives in the U.S. is favorable, over half (58%) of business leaders said their industry viewed these alternatives favorably.

The variety and quality of career training programs have never been better. In recent years, tech companies have entered education with bold programs — and bold ideas as to their ability to supplant the college degree with certificates. There's Microsoft's Career Coach, IBM's SkillsBuild, and Google IT Certificates, which Google promises to consider equal to a bachelor's degree for some roles.

While business leaders see the value of college alternatives, and the declining importance of traditional degrees, most remain loyal to the traditional higher education they received. Of the 1,000 business leaders surveyed, more than 97% reported having at least some college experience. More than half (57%) said that having a college degree is important for earning a living, and 60% said that earning a college degree is important for achieving long-term career success.

College-Educated Most Likely to Say Their Paths Built Job Skills

While college may be decreasingly important to employers, choosing not to go or failing to finish is a regret for many Americans. Among respondents whose highest level of education was some college or a two-year degree, just over a quarter (28%) said that if they could change their education and training path they wouldn't do anything differently. In contrast, well over half of those with a postgraduate degree (62%) said they wouldn't change their path.

Among Americans who have held a job, the higher their education level, the more likely they were to agree that their education and training path was valuable, formed usable job skills, and helped them in their career.

Adults with college experience as their primary source of education or training for their current job were more likely (74%) than those without college experience as their primary source of education or training for their current job (61%) to consider their path to job skill development and employment valuable.

Among Americans who have held a job, the higher their education level, the more likely they were to agree that their education and training path was valuable

Those with a postgraduate degree agreed their path was valuable at the highest rate (88%), followed by those with a two-year degree or some college experience (71%). Just over half (56%) of those with a high school diploma or less said the same.

When it comes to work and life satisfaction, going to college still holds value. Rather than supplant the role college plays in personal development, alternative education can contribute to lifelong education, helping workers build credentials over time and respond to emerging opportunities.