What did it take to get a job as an administrative assistant or a production supervisor a decade or two ago? What does it take today?

That's exactly what researchers from Harvard Business School, Accenture, and training program Year Up were looking to answer when they went sifting through 26 million job postings recently and then compared requirements for today's jobs with the people currently doing the same work (who were, presumably, hired a few years back).

What they uncovered was widespread "degree inflation." Or to put that in everyday language -- jobs that people once did perfectly well without a four-year degree now demand one as a requirement to even be considered for an interview.

A degree is the lazy hiring manager's screen for basic skills.

"We found that the degree gap (the discrepancy between the demand for a college degree in job postings and the employees who are currently in that job who have a college degree) is significant," the authors write in their report. "For example, in 2015, 67 percent of production supervisor job postings asked for a college degree, while only 16 percent of employed production supervisors had one. Our analysis indicates that more than 6 million jobs are currently at risk of degree inflation."

The reason for this is pretty simple, according to the report. A college degree has become the lazy hiring manager's screen for basic communication and tech skills. You don't need to go to college to have these skills, of course, but getting through a four-year bachelor degree program shows you probably do have the basics covered. Therefore, companies try to save themselves the hassle of sorting through candidates by just requiring a degree.

Unfortunately, that's a terrible idea.

Dear degree-obsessed companies, please stop shooting yourselves in the foot.

It is first and foremost terrible news for the millions of hard-working, skilled Americans who lack a four-year degree but nonetheless would like to score a decent job. And it's even more tragic for those who were once laid off from jobs where they performed well and aren't even looked at for similar positions because they don't have a college degree on the bottom of their resume.

But those last numbers are ominous for degree-obsessed companies as well. Not only do these trends hurt workers, they also hurt employers who end up paying too much for the skills they need.

"The results of our survey were consistent across many industries -- employers pay more, often significantly more, for college graduates to do jobs also filled by non-degree holders without getting any material improvement in productivity," claims the report. How much more?  Between 11 percent and 30 percent more for employees who perform "nearly or equally well on critical dimensions like time to reach full productivity, time to promotion, level of productivity, or amount of oversight required."

And that's not the only problem with just slapping 'degree required' on that job ad to save yourself a little extra work. "Employers incur significant indirect costs," the report also notes. "Seeking college graduates makes many middleskills jobs harder to fill, and once hired, college graduates demonstrate higher turnover rates and lower engagement levels."

The conclusion is breathtakingly obvious: remove "degree required" from your next job ad and you'll probably be flooded with a ton more applications. Yes, sifting through them for hidden gems is annoying and time-consuming, but it will result in employees who perform just as well, work just as hard (if not harder), and cost you significantly less.

Does your company require a degree for too many positions? Are you missing out on talent because of this?

Published on: Nov 2, 2017