Does This Position Require a College Degree? 3 Tips for Construction Hiring Managers

Jun 4, 2024

When it comes to putting together position descriptions and evaluating candidates, hiring managers have to deal with one of the biggest debates in the construction industry: should they require a college degree for the position?

The ongoing labor shortage and high retirement rates leave many hiring managers scrambling to find strong candidates for their open positions, and the pool gets even smaller when the position requires a four-year degree. Although the number of college graduates with degrees in construction is on the rise, it’s still much too low to compensate for the losses the industry has sustained from retirements and a reduced labor force.

We asked six of Kimmel & Associates’ construction industry experts about the trends they’re seeing in the hiring process and what advice they’d give to construction hiring managers. Here’s what they told us:

  1. Be realistic: Does the position actually require a college degree?
    College degrees are a valuable resource. They provide a strong educational background and critical thinking skills to graduates. However, getting a college degree is not the only way to gain those skills. For Mechanical Division Associate Ryan Hennessee, “field experience and specialization in certain systems” is the most important credential for a hands-on construction role. Steel Division Market Leader Michael Jones agrees, adding that “time in the industry is a good trade-off for a four-year degree.”

    Heavy Civil Division Executive Vice President David Goodrum points to other qualities that, in many cases, outrank an official degree: “Willingness to work hard, learn, be a teammate, and do the ‘dirty work’ without being told it needs to be done, combined with diligence, integrity, and honesty.” Industrial/Power Division Market Leader Colby McCoy says the combination of both experience and “soft” skills is ideal: “Trade knowledge with an ability to lead and manage will win every time.”

    Jones advises hiring managers to evaluate each position based on the job description. “Rank each requirement/skill in order of importance. Chances are, the most important things on your list won’t require a four-year degree.”
  2. If a position requires a four-year degree, be transparent about why.
    The truth is, some positions do require higher levels of formal education in order for candidates to succeed. Goodrum says that generally, positions that require “a strong foundation in engineering, math, and physics principles” are going to target candidates with a bachelor’s or master’s degree in a relevant field. McCoy adds that some high-level operational roles also continue to ask for degreed candidates: “Most of the time that would be safety directors, financial professionals, human resource directors, etc.”

    General Construction Division Market Leader Jay Dubac agrees, noting that sometimes, the hiring manager might not have a choice about the requirement. “Recently, a large owner-developer was looking for an accounting manager to help handle finances. Because they’re a publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange, they have to keep the four-year degree requirement in place.” The important thing is to let candidates know why specific roles require a degree, so that everyone is on the same page.
  3. Create opportunities for exceptional employees and candidates to get their degrees.
    After a careful evaluation of the position, hiring managers might still find themselves torn. A candidate might be able to step in and do the job without a college degree, but that four-year degree would really benefit them in the long run, maximizing their success in the position. Equipment Division Executive Vice President Bill Wolfe suggests focusing on the most immediate drivers of success: “Cultural fit and industry experience should be the key elements for consideration” when hiring a candidate.

    Then, Jones says, upskill current employees and new hires to give them the education that would benefit both the company and the employee’s long-term career prospects: “Research online classes and trade school classes that might benefit them. Offer to pay for those classes or reimburse employees who pursue continuing education.” That way, hiring managers bring the best candidate on board and continue to invest in their success in the role, something that has proven to improve retention rates.

It can be challenging to weigh the pros and cons of a college degree versus a vocational education or industry experience. But realistic evaluation of a position, transparency in the hiring process, and creating opportunities for continuous education are great ways for hiring managers to ensure that they’re building a great team that will only get stronger over time.

We are thankful to Jay Dubac, David Goodrum, Ryan Hennessee, Mike Jones, Colby McCoy, and Bill Wolfe for contributing their unique perspectives to this article.

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