20 States in United States remove degree requirements from government jobs

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Over the past two years, more than 20 states have increased access to state jobs by assessing or removing bachelor’s degree requirements. Given that state, local, and federal governments employ 15% of the U.S. workforce, this shift has significant implications, particularly for “STARs” (Skilled Through Alternative Routes). STARs, who acquire their skills via community college, the military, partial college, certification programs, and especially on-the-job training, make up over half of the nation’s workforce and currently hold about 2 million state jobs.

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Government leaders view eliminating bachelor’s degree requirements as essential for meeting hiring needs and fulfilling public service commitments. As states grapple with numerous open roles, removing these requirements can attract a broader talent pool. Despite existing laws prohibiting educational discrimination, hiring practices have traditionally favored degree holders, leaving STARs underrepresented in state jobs. Although STARs comprise half of the workforce, they hold only 36% of state positions, creating a gap of 1 million jobs nationwide. By removing degree requirements, states signal to STARs that their applications are welcome.

This initiative also aims to create a state workforce reflective of the communities it serves. Government employment has historically promoted economic equity, offering opportunities to historically disadvantaged groups, including women and Black workers. However, the emphasis on credentials in recent decades has inadvertently excluded many STARs, disproportionately affecting Latino or Hispanic workers, Black workers, veterans, and those from rural areas. Nearly 80% of Latino or Hispanic workers and almost 70% of Black, veteran, and rural workers are screened out when a bachelor’s degree is required. Increasing STAR hiring can help address this inequity.

While it’s too early to fully gauge the impact of these changes, early signs are promising. In the first quarter of this year, more than 20 states committed to focusing on skills-based hiring through the National Governors Association’s Skills in the States Community of Practice. Opportunity@Work, a lead partner in this initiative, supports states in preparing and implementing skills-based practices to improve STARs’ hiring and advancement outcomes.

Recent data analysis of state job postings reveals a significant shift. For jobs paying above the national median wage in states that removed degree requirements by April 2023, the percentage of roles listing a bachelor’s degree as a requirement dropped from 51.1% to 41.8% over a 12-month period. The largest declines occurred in management, IT, administration, and human resources roles, where STARs have been underrepresented in the public sector compared to the private sector.

State leaders see these efforts as foundational. “We are creating opportunities for everyone, not just those with higher education,” said Melissa Walker of the Colorado Department of Personnel and Administration. Colorado’s approach includes policy updates, training for hiring managers, and the development of a skills-based hiring toolkit. These resources aim to foster skills-first thinking and behavior change at the hiring manager level.

Although transforming culture and systems within large, decentralized state governments is challenging, more than 20 states are undertaking this effort. Encouraged by early successes, Opportunity@Work is launching the STARs Public Sector Hub to support these states and others in their skills-based hiring journey, building a public workforce that meets today’s needs.

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