“Degree or Not Degree?” Skills-Based Hiring & The Federal Government

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The Summary

How a recent executive order aims to refine hiring practices.

A recent executive order on federal hiring practices shows that more and more employers are looking beyond a formal education...

For decades, a college degree has been the golden ticket to a good-paying job, especially in Washington, D.C. But a recent executive order on federal hiring practices shows that more and more employers are looking beyond a formal education to figure out who’s right for the job.

Last month, President Trump signed an executive order to promote what’s known as “skills-based hiring” throughout the federal government. The order instructs the director of the Office of Personnel Management to “review and revise all job classification and qualification standards” for a range of positions.

Simply put, federal agencies must broaden the criteria they use to identify job seekers’ skills beyond their college education. Instead of solely considering their book smarts, agencies must evaluate a candidate’s concrete skills, as shown by their work history and other activities, to determine whether they are the right fit.

With this order, the federal government is joining a recent shift in the private sector toward “skills-based hiring.” Employers like IBM and JPMorgan are increasingly dropping college degree requirements and are instead asking applicants whether they have the skills necessary to do the job.

Advocates of “skills-based hiring” say insisting on a college degree deprives employers of real talent. Rather than ensuring candidates can perform the job, degree requirements have excluded millions of workers who have all the skills and experience, but not a diploma.

In an age when more Americans are trying to “upskill during lockdown” through Coursera classes and free coding bootcamps, it doesn’t make sense to reject perfectly capable programmers just because they can’t quote Shakespeare.

Proponents of the executive order also argue that an emphasis on college education disproportionately burdens lower-income applicants, especially Black and Hispanic Americans. Job-seekers are forced to “pay to play” – they must take on student loan debt before they can even begin to build their careers.

This inequity is especially pronounced among the 2.1 million employees of the nation’s largest employer: the federal government. Thirty-six percent of federal employees work in “professional occupations,” which usually require at least a bachelor’s degree - a full 16 percentage points higher than among private-sector employees!

But even though many Americans, including the President, are now rethinking the value of a college education, a four-year degree still has its advantages.

Some government jobs do require a formal education. No matter how well you can argue, you still need a law degree to be an attorney.

A degree has also traditionally been a sign of your overall competence. Surviving a four-year university can demonstrate your ability to navigate the workplace and perform on the job.

And never underestimate the importance of connections. Even if employers are more interested than ever in “what you know,” “who you know” still matters a lot. At college you make friends and acquaintances who later in life can alert you to job openings -- and give you a recommendation to boot.

So though employers may be questioning the value of degrees, it will take more than this executive order to eliminate the practical advantages that push many to invest in a college education. Still, with backing from private sector heavyweights, and now the federal government, skills-based hiring is certainly gaining ground.

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