Soft Skills and the Reset on Employer Degree Requirements

workers on laptops together
     Photo: fauxels

Job-market studies of more than 15 million job postings nationally between 2016 and 2021 found that more than a third of the top 20 skills specified for the average job had changed. One in five of those top skills was entirely new to the work. Some people are calling it a reset and it was accelerated by the pandemic. Employers are resetting degree requirements in a wide range of roles, dropping the requirement for a bachelor’s degree in many middle-skill and even some higher-skill roles. This trend has implications for how employers find talent. It also opens up opportunities for two-thirds of Americans without a college education. At least one report projected that an additional 1.4 million jobs could open to workers without college degrees over the next five years.

Is higher education out of the game? No, it still has a role to play, but these kinds of reports find that employers’ demand for bachelor’s and postgraduate degrees was “starting to decrease perceptibly.” Almost half of the middle-skill jobs and nearly a third of the high-skill occupations showed significant reductions in degree requirements between 2017 and 2021.

This is a good thing if you are concerned with equity in hiring. That report's estimate for the next five years is that 1.4 million more jobs will be open to workers with the requisite skills but no degree.

I wrote here recently about seeing more about skills-based hiring and competency and mastery and less about degrees. Are employers lowering their standards? But when they drop degree requirements, job postings become more specific about skills. Job postings are very likely now to be specific about soft skills. The assumption that someone applying with a college education will have skills such as writing, communication, and attention to detail is not a good assumption.

I never liked the term "soft skills" which seems to undervalue those skills. A clear majority of employers say soft skills play a critical role in their hiring decisions.

ZipRecruiter compiled some of the most in-demand soft skills on its platform. Here are the top skills on that list, including the number of jobs on the site listing the skill as a requirement.

Communication skills Number of jobs listing the skill: 6.1 million
Customer service Number of jobs listing the skill: 5.5 million
Scheduling Number of jobs listing the skill: 5 million
Time management skills Number of jobs listing the skill: 3.6 million
Project management Number of jobs listing the skill: 2.8 million
Analytical thinking Number of jobs listing the skill: 2.7 million
Ability to work independently Number of jobs listing the skill: 2 million
Flexibility Number of jobs listing the skill: 1.3 million

Having studied and done a lot of work and teaching around communications, it does not surprise me that remote and hybrid work arrangements have increased the need for good communication skills. This can range from how you respond to an email, to making a presentation to a live or virtual audience.

Flexibility is a broad skill and hardly "soft." Multitasking, shifting to virtual, using new tools and a host of other situations follow the adage that the only constant is change.

Will the skills-based hiring trend continue? Some major employers, like IBM and Accenture, have publically altered their hiring practices. But several tech companies that had made big announcements about favoring skills over degrees in hiring for IT jobs still haven’t eliminated degree requirements from their job descriptions.

Digital Wallets


Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay


Digital wallets are tools to collect workers’ learner and employment records. They are not a new thing and have gone through different names and conceptualizations. In 2018, I was working with "badges" but it wasn't new then. I had worked with the Mozilla Foundation that was developing an Open Badges Infrastructure in 2012 (around the time that MOOCs exploded on the learning scene).

Open Badges is still around and on their site, they claim to be "the world's leading format for digital badges. Open Badges is not a specific product or platform, but a type of digital badge that is verifiable, portable, and packed with information about skills and achievements. Open Badges can be issued, earned, and managed by using a certified Open Badges platform. Want to build new technologies to issue, display, or host Open Badges? The Open Badges standard is a free and open specification available for adoption."

The idea of digital wallets has been talked about again now around the trend of skills-based hiring. If you have read that companies are more likely to hire based on skills rather than degrees, then some way - such as a wallet - that lets individuals collect and share verifiable records of their schooling, work, training programs, military service, and other experience is necessary. This is a work in progress, though you might expect that if this idea has been around for at least ten years that it might have gotten further.

There is a push for common technical standards among wallet developers to allow importing data from a variety of sources and sharing that via employers’ applicant-tracking systems.

When I was exploring badges a decade ago, I was also looking at Competency-Based Education (CBE) and mastery as related to higher education degrees. A simplified explanation of the difference from the view of an employer: MASTERY is measuring what they know. COMPETENCY is what they can do. Formal education has always been more focused on mastery rather than competency. Employers have those priorities reversed.


Posts related to badges

Unretirement and Returnships

Photo by Sora Shimazaki on

I first wrote about the concept of "unretirement" on this blog in 2016 and I have written about aspects of it on another blog. But the term came up recently in several articles and podcasts I encountered in a new way.

While my definition of unretirement back in 2016 was returning to part-time work after having formally retired from full-time work. I also defined my version of unretirement as working at something you really wanted to do regardless of whether you would be paid to do it. For me, this meant both doing some web design for people I knew and organizations I was involved in (for pay and pro bono), some minor consulting in higher education and also volunteering.

Some volunteering work I did eventually offered me the chance to do some teaching again for a small stipend. It is very part-time work but it is teaching I really enjoy. Another volunteer position with a foundation lead to an offer to create and maintain their website for pay. My goal in volunteering was never to get paid but it is nice to be compensated for your time even if it is not at the level I was once paid as a full-time employee. Unretirement, for me, is not about making money.

But two new reasons for unretirement emerged in the past two years largely because of the COVID pandemic. The first is the need for trained workers after what has been labeled the “Great Resignation” of 2020 and 2021. These are the people leaving the working world for good. The number is estimated to be more than 3 million.

The second reason is that people who retired with no plans to work again found that what they had saved and planned as their money for retirement was inadequate. Rising prices and inflation this year haven’t helped that situation.

A third reason that is not pandemic related is that many people who retire without a plan for what they will do in retirement find themselves bored and actually missing work in some ways.

We have all heard the news stories about the shortage of workers willing to take on certain jobs that had disappeared temporarily during the pandemic. There were also workers whose jobs became so different and difficult during the pandemic (healthcare, education, service industries, for example) that people decided it was time to either retire or change careers.

Companies want to lure back recently retired employees. They may need these workers back into the office or remotely, either full- or part-time.

Another new term I have seen is “returnships.” This blend of unretirement and an internship is a paid, three-to-six-month position that offers on-the-job training. This is something that might have been offered in the past to mid-career employees. For a retiree or someone who has decided to change careers, this is a chance to pick up new skills and maybe lead to a more regular work situation. Suddenly, it seems, that some companies want to keep a connection with their older employees and use their expertise.

An opinion piece in The Washington Post headlined “The Great Resignation is also the Great Retirement of the baby boomers. That’s a problem.” In that article, Helaine Olen points to a Goldman Sachs estimate that more than half of those who had left the workforce during the covid era’s “Great Resignation” were over 55. The pandemic motivated many people to retire earlier than they had planned. She points out that “In the years leading up to the pandemic, many Americans said they wanted to work well past the traditional retirement age. In 2013, a solid 10 percent told Gallup they would ‘never’ exit the workforce.”

So, why return to work, possibly full-time work? Many Americans do not have enough money set aside for their senior years and inflation in 2022 and rising prices let them know that they were going to run out of whatever nest egg or retirement plans they had made. The article also points to a kind of “obsession with work as a way of finding meaning in life.”

This article first appeared at