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Millions of jobs requiring a four-year college degree can be done without that level of education, some corporate leaders say.

To address inequalities in business and society, some executives suggest that companies shake up their approach to hiring and consider unconventional candidates. Black Americans in particular are often left unprepared by the U.S. education system, and companies could help by hiring workers without a degree and giving them training, Kenneth Frazier, CEO of Merck & Co., said Tuesday at The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council Summit.

“It’s really important for us to recognize that because people haven’t had an opportunity early in their lives, it doesn’t mean that they can’t make a real contribution to your company," Mr. Frazier said. “We want to just recognize that, in some ways, this is a harder population, but, at the same time, if we’re committed to being the kind of country that we want to be, then this is something that business has to be willing to do."

Mr. Frazier, with a coalition of dozens of other business leaders, including former International Business Machines Corp. Chief Executive Virginia Rometty, launched a startup last year called OneTen, aiming to create one million jobs for Black Americans over the next 10 years.

He and Ms. Rometty called on companies to re-evaluate their hiring criteria. Otherwise, “you will never fix this economic opportunity issue," Ms. Rometty said.

Both executives said they supported traditional college education for some people, but said many entry-level positions don’t need it. Jobs for cloud programmers, cybersecurity analysts, financial operations and many healthcare jobs can all begin without a four-year degree, and many applicants may choose to get more education later on, Ms. Rometty said.

“The jobs are there, and there’s one structural barrier we can remove," she said.

IBM and other companies have dropped many degree requirements in recent years, Ms. Rometty said. At IBM, Ms. Rometty said propensity to learn became the company’s No. 1 hiring criterion, not pedigree, as the company struggled to fill open positions. Over time and with training, the new-collar employees, as she called those without a four-year degree, had performance results that were equal or better to those of workers with a traditional education, she said.

Mr. Frazier called on CEOs to alter the status quo, and pointed to his own company. Though Merck employs many scientists with Ph.D.’s and advanced degrees, the company has also expanded its hiring in some roles, he said.

“We get many people who are cheaper, they’re just as good, they’re very loyal because this gives them an opportunity," he said. “For those of us who are insiders now by virtue of our success and our positions in companies, we need to extend ourselves and reach out, and bring in people who may not be the people that we’re comfortable with, and may not be the first person that we think of."

Reflecting on his own career trajectory, Mr. Frazier, who will retire as CEO at the end of June, said he had to overcome many implicit biases in his career. He credited his current role atop Merck with being hired to the company out of a law firm in his mid-30s, and being put in a nonlegal business position inside the company where he could learn its operations. He worked closely with the company’s CEO at the time.

Mr. Frazier also said that, earlier in his career, in the late 1970s, he worked as an attorney at a large Philadelphia law firm, at a time when many top firms employed few Black lawyers. A client, General Electric, called one of the firm’s senior partners and asked that Mr. Frazier be removed from a case, citing fears about “having a Black lawyer be the lead lawyer."

The senior partner backed him, Mr. Frazier said. GE didn’t immediately comment.

“The partner told this very important client, ‘You may take your business elsewhere, but we believe in him and we’re not going to replace him,’" he said, calling it a form of sponsorship. “It was someone taking a stand for me early in my career that allowed me to go on and become successful."

Ms. Rometty said she, too, benefited from sponsorship earlier in her career at General Motors Co., and called on companies to commit to changing their practices. She advised that organizations adjust degree requirements in areas, and do it where the company could hire dozens of people without a degree in large cohorts, instead of one or two hires as an experiment.

At IBM, when hiring people without bachelor’s degrees, the company still tested for cognitive and technical skills, and put in place training for managers supervising such employees. Ms. Rometty pushed back against the idea that the company was “dumbing down the workforce" by removing degree requirements, and often brought those workers on stage with her to support their presence at the company, she said.

Mr. Frazier said that companies should look for other ways to remove obstacles for women, people of color and others. In recruiting for board-level positions, even common questions such as “Will this person fit?" or “Who knows this person?" can act as barriers to diversifying a board, he said.

“This is what leadership is about," Mr. Frazier said. “CEOs have to take the lead on these kinds of issues."

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.


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