When Apple CEO Tim Cook visited the White House on March 6, he made a point to focus on hiring practices.
“Our company, as you know, was founded by a college drop-out,” Cook told the president of the United States. “So we’ve never really thought that a college degree was the thing that you had to have to do well. We’ve always tried to expand our horizons.”
Cook was of course referring to Steve Jobs, the late founder of Apple, which ranks No. 7 among the 2019 LinkedIn Top Companies in the U.S. Jobs is just one example out of a group of renowned executives, whose stories of founding successful companies, despite not graduating from college, are very well known.
But Cook went beyond mentioning the singular, exceptional story. He cited a trend.
“About half of our U.S. employment last year were people that did not have a four-year degree,” he said.
Apple is indeed one of a number of employers among this year’s Top Companies that do not require applicants to have four-year degrees, eschewing a long-held norm for American employers. So, while many Top Companies are known to attract talent from the best universities in the country, there are also positions being filled by employees who did not graduate from college.
There are also certain job titles at U.S. Top Companies that are more likely to be filled by non-college graduates than others, too, an analysis of LinkedIn data suggests.
For example, among electronic technicians who work at Top Companies and report their education history on LinkedIn, 26 percent did not list a four-year degree. Electronic technicians are also 7.4-times more likely to list only a high school or Associate’s diploma compared to the average job at a Top Company. For IT technicians, the number is 17% percent, and they are 5.1-times more likely to list only a high school or Associate’s diploma compared to the average job.
Alphabet, Google’s parent company and No. 1 on this year’s list, is also among a long list of companies emphasizing skills over schools. In many of its job listings, Alphabet’s subsidiaries require applicants to have bachelor degrees “or equivalent practical experience.”
And while Snowflake Computing, No. 49 among LinkedIn’s Top Companies, does require a “bachelor’s degree from a reputable institution” in its search for a senior technical recruiter, the cloud-based startup varies its degree requirements for each open position. One listing for an open managerial sales role, for example, mentions no degree requirement.
That Apple, Alphabet and Snowflake are all a part of the same industry is worth noting, too. Bill Castellano, a former HR executive and current professor at Rutgers’ School of Management and Labor Relations, says as tech companies increasingly hire employees for specific projects, they are more likely to show regard for specific skills and experiences, over a degree.
“There are more of the programming and highly technical type positions, where people may have acquired those skills in another way, without perhaps going and getting a four-year degree, that still gives them options for employment,” Castellano said.
Acquiring skills “another way” can manifest in many different forms.
Consider one LinkedIn member, Hannah Maddy, a UX designer at Netflix, ranked No. 11 among this year’s Top Companies. “Not only do I not have a four-year, degree but I’m also a high school dropout and worked the graveyard shift as a baker until I landed my first design gig,” Maddy told LinkedIn.
Maddy said she gained skills through a combination of working on side projects with different friends in the creative field, learning how to code online and constantly sending her portfolio out to different employers.
Next month, she is scheduled to sit on a panel in San Francisco alongside other tech veterans.
There’s also Ross Connally, an account executive at Workday (No. 50). Connally says a bit of fortune contributed to how he got his foot in the door at Dell (No. 10), where he sold computers to the Army and skipped the traditional college path.
“I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time, leaving the Army and living in Round Rock [Texas] in dot-com boom, and went to Dell selling [their products] to the Army,” Connally told LinkedIn. “Proving myself and exceeding my peers with undergrad and grad degrees is more valuable to employers, in my experience.”
Despite stories like Connally’s and Maddy’s, companies largely still rely on degree requirements, not simply because of certain skills an applicant needs to compete in an industry, but because of other qualities the degree “signals,” Castellano says.
“A four-year degree is what we would call a signal that highlights one’s work ethic, one’s ability to achieve certain objective.”
Still, between the companies that are dropping degree requirements, and the individual stories of people who have leaped the barrier of entry at their jobs, it appears some employers are more willing to pay attention to other signals, too.
For our analysis on occupations that don’t require a college degree, we looked at all LinkedIn members currently working at the 50 Top Companies in the U.S., analyzing their profile data to understand both their highest reported degree and current occupation. We compared the result for each occupation against the average across all occupations. For example, 26.4% of Mechanical Designers list only a high school or Associates compared to 3.4% of members in the average occupation at a Top Company. This means the average Mechanical Designer is 7.7X more likely to list only a High School or Associates compared to the average occupation at a Top Company. All data represents LinkedIn information as self-reported by members as of March 2019. Results are aggregated and anonymized.