Employment hiring practices need to change as states support skilled workers  

Ramping up credentialing is a good start, now let’s tear down unnecessary job requirements. 

Female Quality Engineer and Male Production Engineer talking at welding robot in a factory. Cost Reduction in manufacturing process concepts.

By Steven Taylor, Stand Together Trust 

It’s easy to view today’s learning landscape with doom and gloom. Students pile up debt for degrees that don’t translate into good-paying and fulfilling careers even as jobs critical to our society go unfilled.  

Fortunately, some states are taking steps to turn the tide on outdated hiring practices. 

Recently, Idaho and Virginia enacted laws that would ramp up credentialing programs, aiming to upskill thousands of workers and equip them with the skills to realize their full potential. These laws send an important signal to students, educators, and industry: credentials other than college degrees are critical for the economy. But transforming our postsecondary education system requires more than newly skilled workers — it also requires a willingness by employers to hire them.  

These laws are important because our current one-size-fits-all postsecondary education system, which privileges the traditional college degree as the ticket to prepare for a life of purpose, is not working. Education should not be a top-down endeavor where a piece of paper is indicative of one’s value. It should support multiple pathways that empower learners to discover their talents and interests, develop aptitudes and skills, and apply them in society for mutual benefit.  

Degree inflation is leaving millions behind 

For decades, millions of Americans have responded to the siren’s call of college-for-all and enrolled in college at historically high rates. Degree inflation, meanwhile, rose nearly unchecked as employers increased their reliance on college degrees as proxies in the hiring process — including for positions that did not require a college education.  

The data on degree inflation is sobering: 70% of new jobs require a college degree, yet fewer than 50% of American workers have one, according to the 2021 Census. The college-for-all push over the past three decades has driven misaligned incentives and created barriers to employment. Continuing the same strategy and expecting different results is not a winning solution. 

The result was twofold. Too many Americans have spent too much time and money — with more than $1.7 trillion in outstanding college debt — to pursue degrees they didn’t always need. And too many skilled and talented workers without college degrees have been shut out of good jobs. 

But a path forward for postsecondary education is at hand. We must make sure that learners are not left in a worse position than before their postsecondary education. To achieve that, we must work to expand access to myriad learner-centered degree and non-degree pathways – based on skills and aptitudes – which will improve economic opportunities for all Americans and help people realize their full potential.   

Ramping up alternatives to postsecondary education is key  

Idaho and Virginia took some critical first steps to increase the supply of alternative individualized education.  

Idaho’s governor signed an extension of Idaho Launch, putting the state’s high school graduates on a more direct path to in-demand careers. The program will start in 2024, giving qualifying students grants of up to $8,000 to cover 80% of the expense of pursuing a career-oriented credential at an Idaho college or recognized workforce training program.   

Virginia’s law will streamline the state’s sprawling workforce development programs, allowing its residents to easily access state workforce programs and more efficiently produce a workforce that Virginia’s businesses demand. The law will create a statewide workforce strategy designed with sufficient flexibility both to meet local and regional needs and scale proven strategies across the commonwealth. It consolidates program evaluation to improve accountability and delivery of skill-building and workforce development services. 

These programs are major steps in the right direction, but they are only one piece of the puzzle. 

Rethinking employment hiring practices will unleash potential  

A skilled workforce brings incredible potential, but unleashing this potential requires recognizing skills acquired through alternative routes.  

To do that, employers — including states — must shift their focus from colleges and degrees to individuals and ways they can apply their skills and aptitudes in society for mutual benefit. Ramping up credentials is only half of the equation, state leaders must remove unnecessary degree requirements for state jobs and send an important signal that their workers compete on skills – not credentials.  

These policy decisions have wider implications. If states no longer consider college degrees as proxies for job skills, they remove the risk from implementing skills-based hiring — something from which the private sector can benefit. Companies, meanwhile, should remove degree requirements that present unnecessary barriers to job candidates who didn’t graduate from college but have strong on-the-job, civic, or military experience. 

Policies like this have already been successfully implemented in many states across the country. Just this year, Virginia, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, and half a dozen other states have dropped degree requirements for thousands of their public sector jobs; these states follow similar moves by governors in Maryland, Colorado, Tennessee, and Utah in 2022.  

Maryland, the first state to attack public sector degree inflation, saw hiring of new employees without college degrees increase by 41% year over year for positions in information technology, customer service, and several other areas.  

These states are finding a better way for our postsecondary education system by supporting alternative educational pathways and removing unnecessary job requirements. Will others follow their lead?  

Stand Together Trust is part of the Stand Together philanthropic community

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