By Elaine S. Povich
With record numbers of state jobs going unfilled since the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Maryland was in a bind. So, officials decided to eliminate the four-year degree requirement for thousands of those jobs—from parole agents to information technology specialists to nursing assistants—becoming the first state to do so.
In the current tight labor market, Maryland is not the only state engaged in a desperate search for government employees. Unemployment remains low, and there are millions more job openings in both the public and private sectors than there are workers to fill them.
Some private companies already have scaled back education requirements in the race to attract employees. It makes sense for states and other public sector employers to do the same, according to Harvard Business School economics professor Joseph Fuller, who has studied the trend.
“It is increasingly difficult for state governments to attract certain kinds of talent,” Fuller said. “Especially those where salary and benefits are, or are perceived, not to compete with the private sector.
“You want to expand your pool of workers, and this is one way to do it,” he added. “There are 35 million Americans with some college but no degree. These are not high schoolers; these are people with 25 years of experience … like coders or programmers who don’t have degrees.”
In March, Maryland Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) announced the requirement change for positions including information technology, customer service and administration. Instead, applicants will be able to substitute relevant work experience, military training or community college or other educational courses. Maryland’s largest employee union pushed back against the reform and accused the governor of “deskilling state services” after years of rising vacancies during the Hogan administration.
The Maryland Department of Legislative Services reported in January there were more vacant positions in the executive branch of the state government than at any time since the Great Recession in 2008, amounting to 8,689 positions left empty.
A survey last year by ICMA-RC, a public sector retirement management company now known as Mission Square Retirement, described public sector recruiting as “difficult,” particularly in health care, corrections, policing, skilled trades and engineering.
“From a competitiveness standpoint, public sector employers often have difficulty competing with private sector firms, which may have more flexibility to offer higher salaries to meet market demand,” the report said.
It also found that the high number of retirements caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to the large number of job openings, making it even more imperative that governments attract more workers. Some governments also have gone to remote work or split schedules to accommodate workers.
In a 2017 study, Fuller and colleague Manjari Raman criticized what they called “degree inflation,” defining it as “the demand for a four-year college degree for jobs that previously did not require one.” They noted that many “middle skills” jobs that used to accept applicants with a high school diploma now require a college degree, even though only a third of adult Americans have that credential.
Fuller and Raman found, for example, that in 2015, 67% of production supervisor job postings asked for a college degree, even though only 16% of employed production supervisors had one.
“This phenomenon hampers companies from finding the talent they need to grow and prosper and hinders Americans from accessing jobs that provide the basis for a decent standard of living,” they wrote.
Cognizant of such studies, Maryland consulted with nonprofit groups focused on employment and the recruitment and advancement of people of color, who are less likely to have bachelor’s degrees, and workers with less formal education.
In 2019, 71% of Asian Americans 25 and older had a bachelor’s degree, compared with 45% of White adults, 29% of Black adults and 21% of Hispanic adults, according to the Education Data Initiative.
Joe Farren, chief strategy officer at the Maryland Department of Labor, said the state discovered a pool of well-qualified talent that “hasn’t been able to access certain jobs.”
He said Maryland identified half of the state’s 38,000 jobs where employees and applicants can substitute what are dubbed “STAR” skills—Skilled Through Alternative Routes, which include military service, on-the-job training, apprenticeships and community college programs—to take the place of a four-year college degree.
According to the nonprofit group Opportunity at Work, which advocates for minorities and people who come to work with varied backgrounds, some 51% of Black workers, 55% of Hispanic workers, 66% of rural workers of all races and 61% of veterans fall into the STAR category.
“And so you have this well-qualified, well-trained labor pool that was bumping up against a requirement that just wasn’t necessary for a large number of our jobs,” Farren said in a phone interview.
Bridgette Gray, chief customer officer at Opportunity at Work, said upward mobility at an organization is as important as being hired.
“The biggest way STARs gain their skills is through employment,” she said in a phone interview. But if a college degree is required to get a promotion, workers can get pigeonholed, she said. “For STARs, we want to make sure whatever their initial job is, that they don’t get stuck, there is upward mobility.”
She also noted that since Maryland relaxed some of its education requirements, several other states, including Arizona, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregon and Tennessee, have reached out to her organization to ask about pursuing a similar path.
But the private sector is setting the pace, according to a February report from the Burning Glass Institute, a business research firm. The study found that employers are “resetting degree requirements … and dropping the requirement for a bachelor’s degree in many middle-skill and even some higher-skill roles.”
The study found that degree “resets” started to occur before COVID-19 but accelerated because of the pandemic. If the trend continues, the report predicted, an additional “1.4 million jobs could open to workers without college degrees over the next five years.”
However, the study showed 37% of mid-level skilled jobs had not been reclassified, “effectively stripping 15.7 million people out of their candidate pool, even as employers struggle to find enough workers.”
The federal government has taken steps in that direction as well. The White House, under both former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden, ordered that education requirements for some federal jobs be scaled back.
In Maryland, Farren said it’s too soon to determine how removing the college requirement has affected recruiting and hiring, though it appears that applications and interest are up.
But in Boulder County, Colorado, which dropped its four-year degree requirement in 2019, the results are in.
Human Resources Director Julia Larsen said Boulder County, which has about 325,000 residents, hired 13% more non-degreed people in 2021 compared with 2019, the year the program started. The county also saw a 10.2% increase in the number of employees of color hired that year compared with 2019, she said in a text message.
Boulder County was interested in expanding the pool of applicants to include more people of color and others with varied experiences, Larsen said.
“Collectively, through removal of degree requirements, as well as a very strong commitment to equitable hiring, we have seen an increase in hiring people of color—particularly in leadership positions,” she said.
Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this report.