The solution for winning the Talent War is not only about hiring and retaining the right people with the right skills, it’s also about finding and uncovering more sources for these people.  As is the case for many problems these days, this problem is being solved partly due to technology.

One of technology’s great gifts is that education has been brought to more people in more places at a rapid pace. Online education and distance learning have lowered the costs and globally extended educational opportunity access to millions of people.  The end result – more educated candidates and potential workers available in the talent pool.  And these candidates can’t be ignored forever. 

Students have chosen the distance learning route for many reasons.  Trying to juggle a career and a family are daunting.  The opportunity cost to stop work and complete an education or secure an advanced degree is huge.  A great school could be in another state or another country and a potential student’s obligations and location are simply not convenient for them to take advantage of a quality, campus-based program.

Many academics and professionals have and will continue to turn their noses up at the thought of hiring someone who has completed an online education.  There are commonly heard arguments against online education: not enough academic rigor, not enough student face time with peers and faculty, an increased risk for plagiarism and dishonesty, and limited ability to network. 

Those in favor of online and distance learning delivery as a delivery option will tell you that the quality of programs are increasing, that academic rigor is intensifying and that high admission standards and accreditation are quickly enhancing the value of many online degrees.  Combine these factors with technology to solve a lack of face-time with peers and professors, orientation and immersion weeks at the beginning and during a program, and facilitated team-based projects can and do mitigate arguments against distance learning delivery.

Of course, there are those who just don’t care about where or how a degree was earned.  “I hire skills and not the degree” is a classic refrain. 

Regardless of what your perspective is, online and distance learning programs are not without their problems.  Hundreds of for-profit companies are flooding the market with far less than legitimate offerings.  I have seen ‘state licensed’ included in some of the ads for online education.  A ‘state-licensed’ quasi-college can be a sign-me-up attraction for those not in the know.  Joe’s Plumbing and Mary’s Florist Shop are also state-licensed businesses, however it does not mean that they are qualified to offer an accredited college degree. The message to potential student consumers and hiring managers here is Buyer Beware!

As a talent acquisition or hiring manager, you must be absolutely confident in your hiring decisions.  To hire people with online degrees, you have to first complete your homework, pun intended.  A real challenge is how do you determine if a candidate with an online degree is academically prepared for the role?  For one, research.  Check that the institution is accredited by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), the US Department of Education (USDE) or if it is a business degree, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB).

Second, ask about the program.  Does it closely mirror a full-time, campus-based degree at the same school?  What opportunities do participants have to engage and network with peers and faculty? Do students participate in collaborative projects or teams?  A good rule of thumb is if the full-time, campus-based program is highly rated, then chances are the online or distance learning degree will be rated high.

Don’t reject a candidate with an online or distance learning delivered degree without a good reason.  Treat them as you would a candidate who graduated from a full-time program.  Ask the online degree applicants similar questions about experience and skills to do the job.  But also ask about their soft and presentation skills, where they had opportunities to collaborate and work in teams, and how they obtained the experiences that mirror those candidates holding degrees from a campus-based educational institution.

Acceptance of online degrees is growing.  And although it may be little bit longer before professional services firms start paying attention to candidates with online degrees, at least a third of the top 100 MBA schools offer an online degree with more on the way.  If you fail to consider online degree candidates as part of the solution as the talent war heats up, you are putting yourself at a disadvantage.  And if you and your company are coming up with a shallow talent pool, maybe it’s time to start filling it with candidates from online and distance learning programs, too.

Kip Harrell is vice president of client talent acquisition for Govig & Associates.