Kai Westby always assumed he would need a four-year degree to work in corporate business.

He started at Minnesota State University, Mankato, in fall 2020 but realized after just one semester that the traditional college path was not for him. Westby, 20, left the university and soon discovered a new apprenticeship program with Aon insurance company that could also lead to his dream corporate career.

Now a year into the program, Westby works for Aon while pursuing an associate degree in marketing and management at Normandale Community College. The company pays him a salary, covers his tuition, and is offering him a chance to move into a higher position — such as insurance specialist, human resource specialist or IT analyst — once he completes his two-year apprenticeship.

“I thought about leaving four years of college and I’m like, ‘That’s just four years with a piece of paper and a lot of debt,’ ” Westby said. “But this is a great experience with absolutely no debt left behind.”

In a historically tight labor market, a growing number of employers are wooing Minnesotans like Westby by eliminating four-year degree requirements for jobs and offering to train new hires themselves. Those companies in Minnesota and the U.S. are prioritizing specific skills and experience over educational background, opening more careers to people without degrees and raising questions about whether a college education is as necessary as it used to be.

Minnesota colleges, many of which lost 25% of their enrollment over the past decade, are responding by partnering with employers and launching accelerated programs to get students into the workforce more quickly.

To remain relevant, they will have to convince employers and increasingly skeptical families that costly degrees are still valuable.

“Our colleges and universities should be ready to meet the workforce demand, not only of today but also of the work of the future,” said Devinder Malhotra, chancellor of the Minnesota State colleges and universities system.

Workers without degrees are in high demand in Minnesota.

Eight of the state’s top 10 in-demand occupations require only a high school diploma. And more than 40% of the roughly 206,000 job vacancies in the second quarter of 2021 had no educational requirements, according to the state Department of Employment and Economic Development’s most recent data.

Registered trade apprenticeships — only some of which require education at a technical college — have also been on the rise in Minnesota, more than doubling since the late 1990s, according to the state Department of Labor and Industry.

Degrees not required

In recent years, some major companies have begun considering workers without college degrees for white-collar jobs if they have relevant skills and experience. Those removing four-year degree requirements say it is helping diversify their workforce and expand applicant pools.

“We’re trying to bring a new group of people into the professional workforce, and while we’re doing it, we’re helping solve a talent shortage,” said Ray Longo, Aon’s Upper Midwest market leader who manages the company’s corporate apprentice program in Minnesota.

Aon is working with Accenture and other partner companies to establish corporate apprenticeship networks in several U.S. cities, including Minneapolis.

The Minnesota apprenticeship network is off to a strong start with participation from Aon, Accenture, economic development partnership Greater MSP and locally headquartered companies such as Best Buy and Cargill.

The companies hope to collectively hire at least 1,000 apprentices in the Twin Cities by 2025.

“This isn’t a debate about whether a bachelor’s degree is a valuable qualification in today’s economy. It’s a recognition that a four-year degree isn’t necessary for success in many entry-level roles,” said Peter Frosch, president and CEO of Greater MSP. “Minnesota employers would be smart to be on the forefront of that change because opening hiring to more potential employees is a competitive advantage.”

Between 2017 and 2019, U.S. employers loosened college degree requirements for 46% of middle-skill jobs and 31% of high-skill occupations, according to a report released this year by the Burning Glass Institute, a nonprofit research center that analyzed millions of online job postings.

The trend accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers found, and they projected a million more jobs could open to people without degrees in the next five years if employers keep lowering requirements.

More than 80 of America’s largest employers — including Minnesota-based companies Best Buy, Target and Medtronic — recently pledged to change their hiring and promotion practices to emphasize skills over college degrees.

Medtronic has removed college degree requirements for about 25% of its information technology jobs, replacing them with skills-based criteria such as competence in certain software and technology.

Since it has done so, about a third of Medtronic’s new hires have been people without four-year degrees, and a quarter of the medical device company’s promotions have gone to employees without a bachelor’s degree, said Amy Wilson, human resources director on Medtronic’s global talent acquisition team.

“It’s highlighting for us that we are having the impact, that we are considering and hiring talent that wouldn’t have otherwise been considered,” Wilson said. “External candidates who would have never been able to join the company now have a pathway in.”

Colleges set new course

The shift in workforce needs and hiring practices presents a new problem for colleges and universities: People who had questioned the affordability of college now may also question the necessity.

That could bode ill for colleges here and nationwide. In Minnesota, total undergraduate enrollment has plummeted by almost a third since 2010, to levels last seen in the late 1990s.

Between 2010 and 2020, the share of Minnesota high school students who enter the workforce after graduation increased from 19% to 24% while the share who enroll in college decreased from 70% to 62%, according to state data.

A bachelor’s degree remains a time-tested path to success, however. Research shows college graduates earn significantly more money over their lifetime than high school graduates, and are less likely to be unemployed or live in poverty.

Degree holders also vote and volunteer more often, divorce less frequently and even have longer life expectancy.

“There’s nothing like a college education for economic mobility. That is still true,” said Lori Carrell, chancellor of the University of Minnesota’s Rochester campus.

St. Cloud State University President Robbyn Wacker said she believes employers may lose out on well-rounded workers by hiring for specific skills. In college, people learn secondary skills such as professional communication, conflict management and leadership, which help them be more effective in the workplace, she said.

“Don’t you want an employee that can do all of these things?” Wacker said.

But Wacker and other college leaders acknowledge that higher education institutions must adapt to meet the needs of people who want to quickly enter the workforce.

St. Cloud State is considering upending the traditional college model by letting new students begin their studies at several points throughout the year instead of just the start of the fall or spring semesters.

The university also may offer degree programs with accelerated graduation timelines.

Students are increasingly showing interest in faster programs.

Nearly half of the more than 5,000 U.S. high school students surveyed by the Minneapolis-based ECMC Group b etween February 2020 and January 2022 said they want their post-high school education to last less than four years.

Those students also said they would prefer to learn on the job or in hands-on classroom settings.

The University of Minnesota Rochester is among the first colleges to pilot an accelerated bachelor’s degree program.

It’s launching a health sciences degree program this year, called “Nxt Gen Med ,” in which students will take a mix of online and in-person classes year-round, allowing them to graduate in 2½ years instead of four. Students participating in the program will be guaranteed paid internships at the Mayo Clinic.

Carrell said she thinks accelerated bachelor’s degree programs can lower college costs and reduce the likelihood of students dropping out. She’s leading a national “College in 3” project that has tapped 13 colleges to explore and possibly create three-year degree programs.

“Dropping out with debt is bad for the individual,” Carrell said. “It’s also bad for society broadly when we talk about economics and we look at the incredible workforce demands right now.”

The Minnesota State colleges and universities system is focused on increasing i ts partnerships with employers.

Many of the system’s community colleges have received grants of up to $400,000 from the state Department of Employment and Economic Development in recent years to develop and deliver custom training for local businesses.

Anoka-Ramsey Community College, for example, just received funding to provide medical device production training to employees of a manufacturer in Ramsey.

Larry Lundblad, Minnesota State’s executive director for workforce and economic development, said these partnerships will be important as the college system seeks to educate more working adults amid an impending decline in the U.S. high school student population.

Colleges and universities will need to offer more specific career pathways , Lundblad said.

“I know a lot of people that got a degree in something because they were in college and they needed to declare a major, and they got out and they did something totally different,” Lundblad said. “I think long term, once we’ve changed systems and ways of doing business, we’ll see … people being more focused in what they’re doing and what they need.”

Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234 Twitter: @ryanfaircloth