What are Hidden Workers and Why do They Now Have the Opportunity to Get Hired?

You’re job searching or helping a friend job search. Your position may have been eliminated, you or they were caught up in a cut-back.  Yet job after job ad you review states a degree requirement; eliminating you from consideration –  although you may all be searching for a job for which you are well qualified, in an industry you had been steadily and competently working for years, without a degree. Now you’ve been without a job for two years or more. That said, you would now be considered a ‘hidden worker’ according to recent research from
Harvard Business Review.

That said, consider this.

According to recent research by Fuller, Langer, and Sigelman – posted in the Harvard Biz Review – early in the 2000s, a significant number of employers began adding degree requirements to the descriptions of jobs that hadn’t previously required degrees, though the jobs themselves hadn’t changed. The trend — sometimes known as “degree inflation” — became particularly pronounced after the Great Recession of 2008-2009 the Harvard research shows. Degree inflation is a well-known tactic for saving time and money by shrinking the number of qualified applicants.

Several years later, leaders in government, business plus community-based orgs – having hiring issues brought about partly because they’d inflated job requirements – began to realize and talk about the fact a ‘reset was in order’, HBR tells us. Companies then decided they would eliminate degree requirements for many positions.

A decade has now passed and it seemed time, HBR decided, to ask “Have companies followed through? Has the degree-inflation tide turned?”

Before answering that let’s get clear about what skills-based hiring actually is.

Skills-based hiring considers an applicant’s soft and hard skills, in short, their working knowledge rather than prioritizing education. Also, rather than requiring listing their degree area, and related experience they possess, instead, companies look for an applicant’s capabilities. What skills do they currently bring to the table that they can immediately put to use if hired? This is determined through pre-testing before an interview.

To discover whether companies were now skills hiring, the Harvard group hooked up with Emsi Burning Glass – a leading labor market data company, and analyzed 51+ million jobs posted between 2017 and 2020. “What we’ve learned, said the HBR group “is that employers are indeed resetting degree requirements in a wide variety of roles. The change is most noticeable for middle-skill positions — defined as those requiring some post-secondary education or training but less than a four-year degree. To a lesser extent, the change is also noticeable at some companies for higher-skill positions” their report states.

Bottom line:

Today, when evaluating applicants, employers are setting aside the need for a degree and hiring on the basis of demonstrated skills and competencies. This change – this shift – Fuller, Langer, and Sigelman tell us “will open opportunities to a large population of potential employees who in recent years have often been excluded from consideration because of degree inflation. This population includes potential employees who have been described as ‘hidden workers’ “ – Hidden Workers: Untapped Talent ( – Joseph B. Fuller, Manjari Raman, Eva Sage-Gavin, Kristen Hine.


Jean L. Serio
Jean L. Serio
JEAN is a certified Human Resources professional with more than twenty-five years of experience in recruitment, interviewing, job training and development, resume, and LinkedIn Profile writing and review. The last 5 as a Certified Interview Success Coach, CEIC. With a passion for training, she guides others in first understanding their skills and strengths and how to best present themselves during an interview to help them secure the job. Her skills and expertise are also utilized to optimally prepare clients for confidently engaging with HR, hiring pros and decision-makers, and guiding them in how to enthusiastically and professionally respond during an interview rather than fearing the process. Her solid experience, coupled with expertise in the unspoken workings of the interview and hiring process, helps individuals prepare to present their achievements, skills, and expertise not only in a professional but compelling, way using stories of achievements which help the interviewee engage the interviewer or hiring a pro to effectively respond to questions to help raise their get-hired opportunities. Jean has been featured in Forbes;; BLR-Daily HR Advisor; ERE’s Daily HR Advisor; Next Ave. division of PBS; Medium; Entrepreneur HQ Magazine; Self Growth; beBee International, CBS, and NBC online and more. Her past has also included workshop trainings for HR, hosting hiring forums, speaking at job conferences for both job seekers and hiring pros, and more.

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  1. I am glad that the trend is now in this direction.
    And I also read about the “Google certificates” with which he launched a new training paradigm in which knowledge and skills count above all. And it is not the only company.
    I am a graduate, a specialist and I practiced (free) in the field for a few years before entering the world of paid work, but I must admit that then I have too often found myself experimenting with the fact that what was needed when hiring was in reality plus the skills, not the educational qualification, because the two are often not aligned.
    In a rapidly changing world, classic (multi-year) training courses struggle to keep up with the rate of technology update. Often even those who have been an excellent student when they enter the company must learn contents and methodologies that he had never known before. Companies need professionals with specific skills, and often carry out internal training to “build” their workers.

  2. Great question, Jean.
    I haven’t looked for a job for many years and so I have very little personal anecdotal evidence to support the research you quote. I have seen many job description qualifications over the years and listened to many who felt discriminated against by their lack of degree.

    For many jobs, I think the degree is a class distiction that has very little to do with competency (knowledge + skills). Hiring managers want to hire “someone like me.”

    I also think many hiring managers produce the “everything but the kitchen sink” job description -putting in every qualification they can think of. It makes the job they have seem important, and it may reduce volume of applicants, but it produces overqualified hires who leave quickly.

    Still I would take that degree of hiring over people who just hire someone they know, never writing a job description at all, which is often how senior positions and start-ups are staffed.

  3. Hidden workers and degree inflation are two new terms that I was unaware of, Jean. Thank you for teaching me.

    Do we hire for the degree, skills or both? Honesty is needed so as not to deprive job seekers from their opportunity to ge employed. Glad the trend now is in this direction.