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In Hunt for Workers, Some States Value Skills Over Degrees

Eighteen states and major employers including IBM and Google are removing college degree requirements from their hiring processes in response to labor market challenges.

By Andrew Smalley  |  January 15, 2024

As 2024 legislative sessions get underway, a continued focus on addressing workforce shortages remains high on many lawmakers’ agendas. Policymaker stakeholders explored these challenges and the role of skills-based hiring at NCSL’s Forecast ’24 meeting last month in Austin, Texas.

Courtney Haynes, chief engagement officer for the nonprofit advocacy group Opportunity@Work, says that 77% of employers are having difficulties finding skilled talent, according to data from Manpower Group. Despite this need, nearly half of the active labor force lacks a bachelor’s degree or higher and may be excluded from access to more than 70% of jobs.

“What this really means—removal of degrees—is that you are moving toward skills-based hiring, and that is hard.”

—Courtney Haynes, Opportunity@Work

“Employers often screen out millions of applicants before potential employees ever get to even show their skills,” Haynes says. “In this U.S. labor market, we’re excluding even more than we ever have.”

Opportunity@Work classifies about 70 million Americans as “skilled through alternative routes,” or STARs, and found that many of them have the potential to earn higher wages and participate in more highly skilled professions.

In response to these labor market challenges, companies such as IBM, Delta Airlines, Google and Bank of America have removed college degree requirements from their hiring processes. Additionally, at least 18 states have dropped degree requirements for most public sector jobs through a combination of legislation and executive action. Haynes notes that, despite distinctions between legislation and executive orders in different states, an immediate review of all open state positions is the most common feature of these measures. Implementation and oversight of these changes have also varied across states.

“There has been a journey here, especially over the last two years,” Haynes says. “There’s a real opportunity right now to, in real time, document, do some peer-to-peer networking and understand the implementation, understand the practice change.”

She says data shows that hiring of people without a college degree increased 41% year over year in Maryland. The impact was less significant in states that have removed degree requirements because they were already using equivalencies for experience in hiring.

Forecast session attendees questioned whether state legislators, governors or agencies should assume the main purview over state hiring requirements and the impact of these changes on employee promotions and advancement. Haynes encourages state policymakers to continue a dialogue about strategies to address hiring challenges and align education programs.

“What this really means—removal of degrees—is that you are moving toward skills-based hiring, and that is hard,” Haynes says. “Looking for the solutions of what localities are doing to actually move the needle is really where we need to be.”

Andrew Smalley is a senior policy specialist in NCSL’s Education Program.

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