Higher Education

CEO of Upwork Predicts Skills Will Soon Matter More than Degrees

By Cait Etherington
January 21, 2019

Over the past five years, the shift from degrees to skills has been gaining momentum across sectors. First, a few large tech companies, including Google, started to hire more people in tech roles on the basis of their demonstrated competencies and potential to learn on the job. Around the same time, the coding academy sector started to experience tremendous growth. Some of these for-profit coding academies have done such a great job placing graduates in tech positions, they now offer money-back guarantees to graduates who fail to find related positions upon graduation. Now, in a post on the World Economic Forum’s website, Stephane Kasriel, the founder and CEO of Upwork, is suggesting that the shift from degrees to skills is here to stay. But will this shift persist if and when the current skills gap in tech has been addressed?

Kasriel Says College Pedigree Is Losing Its Value

In a January 10th post on the World Economic Forum site, Kasriel, the founder and CEO of Upwork (a global work platform for freelancers), argues that, to prepare for the labor market over the next two decades, everyone needs to radically rethink education. As he writes:

“Fast technological change means that the people operating constantly evolving machines need to learn new skills – quickly. Our current education system adapts to change too slowly and operates too ineffectively for this new world. 

“We need to build an education system for lifelong learning – and a culture that promotes it. Rewiring the system should begin with pre-kindergarten, which should be free and compulsory, while education should remain similarly accessible throughout someone’s working life.”

It is on this basis that Kasriel further argues that we need to let go of our attachment to degrees:

“Skills, not college pedigree, will be what matters for the future workforce – so while we should make sure college is affordable, we should also make sure higher education is still worth the cost, or revisit it entirely and leverage more progressive approaches to skills training. Skills-focused vocational programmes, as well as other ways to climb the skill ladder (such as apprenticeships), should be widely accessible and affordable.”

To support his claims, Kasriel cites Upwork’s 2018 Freelancing in America study, which was released last October. Among other key findings, the 2018 study discovered that freelancers are more likely to find skill-related training valuable than a college education, more proactively updating their skills to remain marketable, and seeking training to enhance skills in areas that affect them most (e.g., technology, networking and business management). The study also found that cost remains notable barrier for many freelancers (53%) who wish to access training.

Kasriel Isn’t Alone In His Predictions

Kasriel may be right, but he is not necessarily visionary. In 2017, just before was acquired by competitor Thinkful, the coding academy adopted a new slogan: Skills > Degree. Bloc’s slogan essentially sums up Kasriel’s argument with two words and a symbol: “Skills are greater than degrees.” But if skills are increasingly being favored over degrees, the reason is clear.

According to a 2016 report by the World Economic Forum, current technological trends are bringing about an “unprecedented rate of change in the core curriculum content of many academic fields.” By one estimate, the study reports, “nearly 50% of subject knowledge acquired during the first year of a four-year technical degree [will be] outdated by the time students graduate.” This necessitates a massive overhaul of our current approaches to education and training. As stated in the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report:

“Most existing education systems at all levels provide highly siloed training and continue a number of 20th century practices that are hindering progress on today’s talent and labour market issues. Two such legacy issues burdening formal education systems worldwide are the dichotomy between Humanities and Sciences and applied and pure training, on the one hand, and the prestige premium attached to tertiary-certified forms of education—rather than the actual content of learning—on the other hand. Put bluntly, there is simply no good reason to indefinitely maintain either of these in today’s world. Businesses should work closely with governments, education providers and others to imagine what a true 21st century curriculum might look like.”

It is on this basis that the World Economic Forum’s 2016 report on the future of jobs further emphasizes the need to rapidly scale training programs and promote life-long learning across sectors.

Some Sectors Unlikely to Be Impacted

While some sectors are certainly becoming increasingly open to hiring people on the basis of their demonstrated competencies or even demonstrated ability to learn on the job, other sectors seem unlikely to let go of their attachments to degrees and formal credentials any time soon. Beyond the education sector, which is evidently invested in upholding formal educational credentials, many other professionals, including law and medicine, continue to cling to credentialism and pedigree. In addition, even as some sectors open up to hiring candidates on the basis of their skills, not degrees, questions remain about how these candidates will advance in their careers over time. It is possible that the current change in attitude about the value of degrees may, in fact, just be a temporary shift that conveniently responds to the current skill gap in the tech sector.

Photo by 85Fifteen on Unsplash.