Recruiting High School and Non-degreed Top Talent — A Missed Corporate Opportunity

Screen Shot 2014-02-26 at 12.55.50 PMIn case you didn’t hear about it, college football powerhouse Alabama recently offered a scholarship to eighth-grade football player Dylan Moses and LSU offered a scholarship to a ninth grader. Before you react in shock as a parent might, consider the fact that teenage talent may be the last remaining untapped corporate recruiting pool. 

Most corporate recruiting leaders wear blinders that prevent them from even considering recruiting top high school and non-degreed talent into their professional positions. Not every recruiting leader has a fear of recruiting teenagers, however. In fact the “early-age talent” benchmark recruiting standard was set a long time ago by sports recruiters.

It’s well-known that NBA basketball has prospered as a result of hiring right-out-of-high school talent like LeBron, Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, and Kobe Bryant who quickly proved themselves. In the corporate world, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and Microsoft are leaders in teenage recruiting (Microsoft attempted to recruit Mark Zuckerberg after he created his Synapse program in high school). Many corporate recruiters and managers will immediately reject the concept of recruiting high school talent, but such an old-fashioned snap judgment could be costing their firms millions of dollars.

Not just athletes but talent in many different technical disciplines are developing much earlier than they used to. Perhaps the best recent example is when Yahoo acquired the mobile website Summly from a 17-year-old tech whiz for $30 million. The firm’s owner, Nick D’Aloisio, who barely had a high school diploma, was asked to stay on and work for Yahoo.

Recruiting Non-degreed and High school Talent Is Not Unusual in the Corporate World

In the corporate world Google, which used to be fanatical about degrees, top schools, and grades, is the leader in the “who-needs-a-degree movement,” as illustrated by Laszlo Bock saying, “… the proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time … we have teams where you have 14 percent of the team made up of people who’ve never gone to college.”

He also stated that “when you look at people who don’t go to school and make their way in the world, those are exceptional human beings. And we should do everything we can to find those people.”

Because Facebook’s CEO is a college dropout, you shouldn’t be surprised to hear what the company had to say on the subject: “It would be weird for us to require a college degree. If you can build awesome stuff and have big impact, that’s all we’re really looking for.”

EA has recruited young gamers. Apple has also occasionally recruited high schoolers (Chris Espinosa, employee No. 8, was hired at 14). Obviously fast-food and retail establishments have been successfully hiring right out of high school kids for years, but those are not professional-level positions.

Article Continues Below

More Arguments and Illustrations Supporting the Expansion of the Hiring Pool

The “don’t disturb their studies” mentality is an antiquated one. Below you will find a list of examples that illustrate the tremendous value of teenage and degreeless young talent.

  • Talent now develops early and outside of coursework — with the growth of the Internet and its numerous self-directed learning sites, it is possible for students to learn at a professional level. In addition, they can post and test their ideas and quickly get feedback, which allows them to develop extremely fast. If you only look at an individual’s coursework or degrees, you’ll simply miss a great deal of younger talent.
  • Not every technical field or position requires a degree — many technology areas like writing code, designing websites, or creating social media site features simply don’t require any college courses. Numerous teenagers have shown that visiting and using these types of sites for more than a decade as children is sufficient preparation. Their age may give them more insight into the next generation of users. Mobile apps are another main technical area that doesn’t require an education because the media is full of examples of teenagers who have successfully developed iPhone and Android apps. Technology advances have also made it easy for almost anyone to create one of these apps.
  • Thiel under-20 fellowships illustrate their potential — PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel has gone through three rounds of paying students as young as 14 $100,000 over two years to forgo college and instead to start their own businesses. The Wall Street Journal reports an impressive result of his “keep them out of school” effort including the fact that “64 Thiel Fellows have started 67 for-profit ventures, raised $55.4 million in angel and venture funding, published two books, created 30 apps, and 135 full-time jobs.”
  • Science fair winners produce professional results — Jack Andraka, the grand prize winner at the Intel International Science Fair, demonstrated that even a teenager could develop an accurate test for pancreatic cancer. The many sophisticated accomplishments of recent science fair winners further demonstrate the capability and the potential value of self-motivated teenagers.
  • Getting a job out of high school no longer prevents a college degree — when the antiquated prohibition against hiring high school students began decades ago, the only college option was full-time attendance. However, now that there is an array of Internet, remote, night, and part-time college options, a full-time job is no longer a barrier to starting or finishing a college degree, even at prestigious schools. And most firms are more than willing to pay for a part-time degree program.
  • You can be an effective CEO without a degree — the recent success of Mark Zuckerberg as CEO shows that even the highest corporate positions don’t require a college degree. Other college dropouts like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Michael Dell, and Larry Ellison show that the success of non-college grad executives is not a recent phenomenon.

Action Recruiting Steps

If you are one of the few corporate leaders who realize that recruiting top talent that may not have much formal education is an incredible opportunity, here are some action steps to consider.

  • Make a strong business case — convince executives of the economic damage that your firm will suffer if it maintains a “degree-required” approach to recruiting. Start by working with the CFO’s office to find a credible way to demonstrate the economic impact that the under-20 crowd has already had at your firm. The most obvious value added usually comes from your high school or college interns who also will look to quantify the contribution made by non-degreed employees. Also look to demonstrate the value of the innovations created by these individuals at other firms within your industry. You should also attempt to measure the positive economic impact that the presence of these younger, less-experienced workers (including acting as reverse mentors) may have on stimulating and challenging your employees with formal degrees.
  • Start off with a small effort — the best way to prove the value of hiring teenagers or those without degrees is to run a pilot and hire a handful of them. Design the program so that it includes the best features of quality internship programs. Then over time track their output and innovations to gauge their performance and their value added. Also look at their failure and turnover rates to see if they are significantly higher than normal.
  • Use the best recruiting approaches — just as with traditional recruiting, referrals are the best way to identify this up-and-coming teenage talent because they are likely to be well-known among their peers and teachers. Holding an Internet technical contest is another excellent way to identify them. You should also encourage your employees to find examples of their work when they are exploring the Internet. You will have to develop some convincing arguments in order to land them. This is because many parents, teachers, and high school counselors will probably advise your targets against taking full-time work before they start or finish college. As mentioned earlier, offering a benefit that allows them to complete a college degree while working full-time for your firm must be an essential component of your recruiting argument.
  • Provide them with a mentor — although they may have technical talent, these teenage hires may be less productive because they don’t understand corporate processes. Providing them with a “not much older” mentor and adding a social media site where they can communicate may help them to be productive faster.

Final Thoughts

Most corporate recruiting leaders are extremely risk-averse, so it’s not surprising that only a handful of firms have realized the value of hiring from this normally bypassed talent pool. Many leaders and managers hold the antiquated notion (usually supported by high school counselors, university personnel, and some parents) that a corporation should not interfere in a student’s path to completing a college degree.

This right-out-of-high-school hiring is a growing and unstoppable trend that you should get into on the ground floor. Your job is to identify the top talent in this pool and get them signed up in some capacity, so that you can begin using their ideas and skills. If you don’t act quickly and begin to build your “early age talent employer brand” and recruiting processes soon, you may never be able to catch up to the Googles, Facebooks, and Yahoos.

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



21 Comments on “Recruiting High School and Non-degreed Top Talent — A Missed Corporate Opportunity

  1. Smart organizations have been embracing the notion of NOT requiring a degree for years. Of course, the role can dictate the need for specialized knowledge provided by degree programs. The key is to make sure that the degree requirement really is a BFOQ.

    Given the propensity for people to sue, I am surprised there haven’t been lawsuits (that I’m aware of), against more businesses on this front.

  2. Wonderful article, and so necessary, including the steps to help ensure success.

    I’ve been having several discussions about this lately with colleagues and friends. I know quite a few phenomenally sharp individuals with exceptional ability and (now) experience who have “non-traditional” career paths that include not having earned a college degree prior to entering the full-time work world. Each of these individuals was fortunate to have been given opportunities with companies or managers who overlooked the degree requirements in their job descriptions, companies or managers who took the time to identify their real potential and ability, ultimately to everyone’s benefit.

  3. @ Todd,

    It’s assumed by many people on both sides to simply be a part of the process. Degrees have become so ubiquitous, and also more and more meaningless, that it likely hasn’t been a problem for most. It would also be counter to the subsidization of higher education, so my guess is you’d see few courts willing to rule against a degree requirement. Essentially the government would then be put in a position where they’re funneling billions into these institutions that provide a degree that their own courts say is unnecessary. I think as education costs keep sky rocketing and more and more people start avoiding college in favor of entering the workforce earlier, you’ll probably see more such suits and a greater likelihood of judges to rule against the requirement.

  4. Truth be told there are very few jobs that really require degrees. With the “just-in-time” case building for courses that provide job ready skills, it just isn’t important that people have courses in Chaucer or Art Appreciation. I imagine there will be pushback as there are still some managers/recruiters that believe that somehow getting a degree shows diligence and commitment. IMHO that’s just not true anymore.

  5. Thanks, Dr. Sullivan.
    “This right-out-of-high-school hiring is a growing and unstoppable trend that you should get into on the ground floor.” What are the *sources you base this on? A few companies hiring the occasional technical whiz kid do not constitute an “an unstoppable trend” to me. Furthermore, what about the vast majority of non-technical positions which list degrees as requirements? Based on *my experiences of contract recruiting for nearly 20 years, there seems to be a REVERSE trend in most areas, with more and more companies requiring degrees for things which clearly do not need them to do the job well, like sourcer and recruiter.

    @ Todd: Would you name a number of these “smart organizations” where the majority of its professional-level positions are open to non-degree holders, particularly in non-technical areas?

    @ Richard: Well-said. IMHO, most degree requirements are a negative hoop for candidates to jump through: the possession of one won’t get you in, but the lack of one will keep you out. It’s like the well-known and often-praised EOC I contracted for some years ago: while sometimes non-degreed technical people were hired, there was an unwritten rule that no one in a nontechnical area would be hired no matter how accomplished they were unless they had a high GPA from an elite or 1st-tier school, of which we had a list. If the non-degreed hiring trend were true, I’d think there also might be more of a willingness to hire people with less prestigious degrees/from less prestigious schools, simply because the company needs to get the work done by someone who can do it., as in WW I or during the Era. I don’t see that, either.

    @ Jacque: Also well-said.


    *Folks, if you have any citable evidence one way or the other (that it’s getting easier OR harder for non-degreed people to get professional-level jobs), please let me know.

  6. Keith,

    Not sure how you arrived at me positing “…the majority of its professional-level positions are open to non-degree holders, particularly in non-technical areas?” from my comment. I don’t mind supporting my statement, though I find it intriguing to be asked to support your interpretation of my remark.

    With that said, I personally have held with major corporations (a Fortune 100 Pharmaceutical firm, a major financial services company, an AmLaw100 Law firm), and currently hold, senior leadership roles even though I do not possess a college degree. Further, in the organizations were I have worked, I have successfully challenged the request to make a degree required for roles where it was not, in fact, a BFOQ.

    Does that stand up as citable evidence?

  7. Not every high school or college drop out will be Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Lebron James, etc.

    To me its more a question of what best for students in the long term.

    I’d like to see stats on how many star college athletes left college early and didn’t turn out like Lebron. Where are they now?

    Sure you can think of a few anecdotes of successful individuals without degrees…but for the majority its to their advantage to get their degree.

  8. I do not think degrees need to be requirements for most positions. However, I do think we should be encouraging students to finish their education.

  9. John-

    Thanks for writing a thought-provoking article. There of course are a great many jobs that do not require a college degree, but might benefit from an apprenticeship program. STEM programs coupled with coursework in financial literacy should be emphasized in high schools. The piece about financial literacy is that students should be aware of the financial implications of their choices by understanding basic money management. If more students understood the costs of a college degree in a major with an anticipated limited demand when they graduated, they might pursue more practical pursuits.


  10. @ Todd,

    Not really evidence. It doesn’t discount your experience, but there would need to be more to identify a trend. I think we’ve all seen examples where non degreed people were hired and did well in positions where degrees are traditionally required. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were a trend but I’ve not seen it or evidence for it, just a few high profile examples, which are really divorced from the standard hiring route most people go through.

    I think the best lesson to take from this is to challenge job requirements that aren’t actual requirements, but put in there for CYA reasons, or for lack of consideration as to what is actually required. It’s easier to say you need an engineer with an ME than to actually define what that engineer will be doing on a day to day basis, and what that might really require of him/her.

    @ Logan,

    Probably right. But the question is whether or not it’s to their advantage simply because it’s expected, or does it actually provide them with any useful skills? I’m not even sure that would be possible to answer definitively for things like engineering positions. I’ve interviewed candidates with degrees, sometimes advanced degrees, for electrical engineering positions who couldn’t tell me Ohm’s law. You’d think that would come standard with the degree. I’ve had similar experiences with MEs who, even after numerous promptings, couldn’t tell me that friction was one of the forces acting on a body on an inclined plane. Or, that pulleys give a mechanical advantage.

    I’d write it off to nervousness of newbies in interviews, but it’s common through many interviews and across experience levels, and those are basic questions. And there are differences in educational systems. I find people with the same degree but from universities from different countries have qualitative differences. I’ve always been impressed by Engineers with degrees from Eastern European schools. Even their recent grads seem to be able to do pretty much anything with a slide rule and a few minutes. US grads on the other hand seem softer, less capable, less rigorous in their schooling. But I honestly couldn’t tell you if that equated to much of a difference in overall job performance, but it certainly makes an impression with a hiring manager during an interview.

  11. @ Todd: Thank you. I interpreted your statement that: “Smart organizations have been embracing the notion of NOT requiring a degree for years.” as meaning that they allowed for the majority of professional-level positions to be this way, as opposed to a few exceptions. Many organizations have a few exceptions (as you and Dr. Sullivan described), and to me “exceptions” aren’t “trends”. I’m curious as to what Fortune 500 firms, other EOCs, or leading startups allow the majority of professional-level positions to be held by non-degree holders, particularly for new hires. It’s quite possible there are a n umber of them, and I just haven’t heard of the trend; perhaps Dr. Sullivan has found a new one.

    Let’s use the “wisdom of crowds” and find out:
    Folks, at your (non-3PR) company, client, etc., are the majority of professional-level positions, (especially non-technical and senor/executive level ones) open to non-degreed candidates? If so, has this been a long-standing policy or a recent change? If you’ve been at a company or recruiting a long time, have you noticed a change in the opposite direction- that degrees are required for MORE positions than previously? I think this is a very interesting topic and I appreciate Dr. Sullivan writing about it.

    @ Logan: I agree that most professional (and other) positions shouldn’t require degrees to obtain employment in them, but the fact is many (and I think and increasing number) DO. As a fairly high percentage of positions are supposedly goiung to be automated out of existence over the next few decades (, it will be interesting to see what this has on the perceived and actual value of a degree.

    @ John DeP: I agree. I think that many currently-degree requiring positions would benefit from an apprenticeship program that combined real-world experience with the formal acquisition of necessary specialized knowledge. An example: if you want to become a doctor or a nurse, you start the medical apprenticeship program (perhaps at age 16 or so) as an orderly- emptying bedpans. Your drive, ability, and intelligence take you from there…

    @ Logan: “However, I do think we should be encouraging students to finish their education.” For what purpose? To have marketable job skills, to be well-rounded, critically-thinking members of a democracy, something else?

    @ Richard: I also think there has been an emphasis on credentials over practical experience in this country, though I suspect other countries may have it as bad or worse than we do in this respect.


  12. @ Keith,

    I think the credentials used to count more, or at least that’s my feeling. It seems the education has meandered off target from what people and companies actually need.

  13. I don’t think the future is corporations recruiting top high school talent. I think the future is corporations starting their own schools, and paying for bright young students to receive an education while they work.

    I think of models similar to the way soccer clubs in Europe develop their players. Instead of hoping to find the diamonds in the rough, why not just make your own?

  14. @Logan – I hope that you’re correct about the future. I believe that would be a brilliant way to go and would reap dividends for the companies and students/employees involved.

  15. @ Richard: Thanks again.
    “It seems the education has meandered off target from what people and companies actually need.” When was it ON target – the Post-Sputnik time?

    @ Logan: Thank you for citing a source of your information!
    “Keith, there’s fairly solid evidence that education is correlated to earning.”
    All else being equal, that’s true.
    Let’s break this down some more: (see below.)
    If everyone graduated college, for there to be an over-all difference, there would need to be a huge pool of jobs that would otherwise be unfilled being filled, e.g., instead of someone dropping out after 3 years, they go on to fill an unfilled RoR SW Engineering position. that otherwise goes empty. My point: for there to be an overall benefit to America as a whole, there needs to be a large number of FT, decent-paying, well-benefitted jobs for these additional graduates to fill, and as far as I know, there AREN’T.

    “I think the future is corporations starting their own schools, and paying for bright young students to receive an education while they work.”
    I don’t think so, because that’s an additional cost that the corps would have to incur, when they can get American and foreign graduates to do the work at no additional cost. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if Google doesn’t do something like that for its employees in a few years….

    @Megan: “I believe that would be a brilliant way to go and would reap dividends for the companies and students/employees involved.”
    I disagree. We don’t need yet another way for the Oligarchy to cut itself off from ordinary Americans. I think before we further weaken public education, we do some important things to mend it, like fixing up every school building in the country, providing a paid teacher’s aide in every classroom that doesn’t have one, making teaching a hard-to-get-into, very well-paid year-round profession, and making sure that if schools are expected to solve all our nation’s kids problems (poor nutrition, health, etc.) they’re given adequate resources to do so.


    What are the graduation rates for students obtaining a bachelor’s degree?


    The 2011 graduation rate for full-time, first-time undergraduate students who began their pursuit of a bachelor’s degree at a 4-year degree-granting institution in fall 2005 was 59 percent. That is, 59 percent of full-time, first-time students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree at a 4-year institution in fall 2005 completed the degree at that institution within 6 years. Graduation rates are calculated to meet requirements of the 1990 Student Right to Know Act, which directed postsecondary institutions to report the percentage of students that complete their program within 150 percent of the normal time for completion (that is, within 6 years for students pursuing a bachelor’s degree). Students who transfer and complete a degree at another institution are not included as completers in these rates.

    Among full-time, first-time undergraduate students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree at a 4-year degree-granting institution in fall 2005, the 6-year graduation rate was 57 percent at public institutions, 65 percent at private nonprofit institutions, and 42 percent at private for-profit institutions. This graduation rate was 56 percent for males and 61 percent for females; it was higher for females than for males at both public (59 percent vs. 54 percent) and private nonprofit institutions (67 percent vs. 62 percent). At private for-profit institutions, however, males had a higher graduation rate than females; the rate was 48 percent for males and 36 percent for females.

    At 2-year degree-granting institutions, 31 percent of full-time, first-time undergraduate students who began their pursuit of a certificate or associate’s degree in fall 2008 attained it within 150 percent of the normal time required to do so. For example, this measure refers to students who were seeking a 2-year associate’s degree and completed the degree within 3 years. This graduation rate was 20 percent at public 2-year institutions, 51 percent at private nonprofit 2-year institutions, and 62 percent at private for-profit 2-year institutions. At 2-year institutions overall, as well as at each type of 2-year institution, the completion rate was higher for females than for males. At 2-year private for-profit institutions, for example, 63 percent of females versus 59 percent of males completed a certificate or associate’s degree within 150 percent of the normal time required.

    Differences in 6-year graduation rates for full-time, first-time students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree in fall 2005 varied according to institutions’ level of selectivity. In particular, graduation rates were highest at postsecondary degree-granting institutions that were the most selective (i.e., had the lowest admissions acceptance rates). For example, at 4-year institutions with open admissions policies, 31 percent of students completed a bachelor’s degree within 6 years. At 4-year institutions where the acceptance rate was less than 25 percent of applicants, the 6-year graduation rate was 88 percent.

    SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2013). The Condition of Education 2013 (NCES 2013-037), Institutional Retention and Graduation Rates for Undergraduate Students.

  16. @ Keith

    “When was it ON target – the Post-Sputnik time?”

    When not that many people went to college, and when they did it was for degrees they actually used in their careers. The push to get more and more people into college, where they end up immersing themselves and earning degrees in such challenging subjects as the cultural impact of poetry about trees, has devalued degrees.

  17. Talent is talent wherever it is, and if high-school students are ready for work, they should be brought on board. However the real division in my mind is not between college and non-college leavers, but between new recruits and those already employed. Too often we look for star talent outside the organization when it is already employed, but remains undiscovered. Recruitment can certainly be improved with the right predictive analytics. In addition to smarter hiring – of all ages – we should look within the organization and aim to optimize the talent we already have.

  18. The employee turnover and increased commitment and loyalty is influenced by the flexibility of working conditions, significantly higher remuneration package when comparing to the industry, profit sharing and other positive benefits to the employees. Moreover the recruitment policy effectiveness is also attributed to the training and development provided by the organisation.

    Read about this more at

    Also visit for similar essays on human resources management

  19. I think it’s a good opportunity for the students, there is very little talent in between us we should not waste it. Students which are God gifted should be awarded for their skills as they are the future of our nation. According to a case study report writing many countries sponsored their students through sports quota and help their students to raise their talent for the international leagues.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *