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Why are more states adopting skills-based hiring practices? Because it works

  1. Future of Work

Why are more states adopting skills-based hiring practices? Because it works.

New policies encourage employers to empower job seekers to reach their full potential.

Why More States Are Adopting Skills-Based Hiring Practices

This article was originally published by Stand Together Trust.

Robert learned the most valuable lesson for his work life from his father. 

“Be the first to show up, the last to leave, and get your job done.”  

That’s what Robert’s father told him growing up. Watching his father’s example inspired him to move in his journey from a sales associate to a manager and now a merchandiser, analyzing numbers and predicting trends so he can send stores the correct inventory.  

Over 10 years with the same company, Robert has built a foundation of skills, experience, and work ethic to build his successful career. Yet, he sometimes worries about his job security because he doesn’t have a college degree. New leadership at the company could determine he doesn’t have the training or education necessary for employment. 

Robert’s story isn’t an isolated experience — more than 70 million talented and driven workers are excluded from the labor market because employers have unnecessary degree requirements in their job openings. This invisible barrier prevents employers and job seekers from reaching their full potential. 

The Cicero Institute, a grantee of Stand Together Trust, is a leading policy organization working across the country to change the status quo from “degree-required employment” to a more open approach that hires employees based on skills, mindset, and aptitudes. 

The push for employers to reconsider degree requirements for open positions has gained momentum in recent years. 

In fact, 72% of employers do not see a college degree as a reliable signal of skills, yet 52% still hire people with college degrees because they see it as the less risky option.  

Furthermore, four-year degree requirements automatically screen out 76% of African Americans, 83% of Latinos, and 81% of rural Americans, according to data collected by Opportunity@Work, a grantee of Stand Together Trust. 

If employers de-emphasized degrees in hiring, job seekers and employers would realize mutual benefit. Individuals would have more opportunities to apply their unique skills and aptitudes toward meaningful work, and employers would have access to more skilled, dedicated employees to advance their mission.  

“Unnecessary degree requirements limit the pool of talented workers an employer can choose,” explains Jonathan Wolfson, Cicero Institute’s chief legal officer and policy director. “But mere lip service from the government isn’t enough – the federal and state leaders who open the door to let more citizens put their skills to work to serve their fellow citizens show the private sector that skills-based hiring is possible and beneficial.” 

At Cicero, we’re focused on developing innovative solutions to public policy problems and want to equip bold leaders in states across the country to bring those solutions to fruition.”

Jonathan Wolfson,

Cicero Institute’s chief legal officer and policy director

Sending a market signal to encourage dropping degree requirements

In recent years, federal and state governments have begun laying the foundation for a shift away from “degree required” for public service jobs.  

In June 2020, then-President Donald Trump signed an executive order that directed the federal government to de-emphasize college degree requirements and assess applicants’ skills instead. It was one of the few executive orders that President Joe Biden kept in place when he assumed office. 

In 2020, Wolfson, then at the U.S. Department of Labor, and Michael Brickman, Cicero Institute’s education and workforce policy director who was previously at the U.S. Department of Education, collaborated with a small team to develop the Trump administration’s executive order.  

In March 2022, then-Governor Larry Hogan announced that thousands of administrative, customer service, and IT jobs in Maryland state government would no longer require four-year degrees. Instead, the state would consider applicants with a high school diploma and three years of relevant work experience, military training, or other training to fill the roles.  

Since 2022, at least 16 states have enacted public-sector skills-based hiring policies. Cicero has played an instrumental role in educating lawmakers and building support for these reforms, resulting in increased momentum for states adopting these policies.  

In Florida, Cicero had an active team with strong relationships in the legislature and the governor’s office, and they educated policymakers on the importance of skills-based language. As a result of these issue education efforts, the model bill language provided by Cicero was passed and signed into law in June 2023.  

“Florida’s Secretary of Management already considered removing unnecessary degree requirements to expand the applicant pool for state jobs when we discussed a statutory pathway,” Wolfson explained. “The Florida legislature and governor’s office not only embraced this opportunity but expanded the principle to state contracting as well.”   

Cicero had a similar impact in Georgia, where, in April 2023, Gov. Brian Kemp signed legislation to eliminate degree requirements for most state jobs. 

“Legislators are busy and are presented with thousands of details each day.  We kept our conversations brief and focused on the state’s need to find more workers to fill vital roles,” Wolfson conveyed.  “Georgia legislators and political leaders across the political spectrum were shocked to learn that simply removing unnecessary college degree requirements could open the floodgates for the state’s workforce.”  

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In other states, governors’ executive orders paved the way for legislation to drop degree requirements for public sector jobs.  

For example, Cicero and Stand Together Trust engaged with Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s staff and the secretaries of labor and education on skills-based hiring reforms in Virginia. In May 2023, Youngkin enacted an executive order directing state agencies to remove unnecessary degree requirements. Steven Taylor, Stand Together Trust’s director and senior fellow for the future of work, praised Youngkin and lawmakers for taking steps in April 2023 to transform the commonwealth’s workforce development infrastructure. Taylor said, “Consolidating workforce programs was an excellent first step to realign workforce supply and demand, but removing public-sector degree requirements was a natural next step.” 

In the next legislative session, Cicero will educate Virginia policymakers on approaches to codify skills-based hiring reforms in the executive order into statute. “Executive Orders are a great way to start the conversation, but codifying a shift toward skills-based hiring through legislation tells everyone the state is willing to do the hard work of hiring the best workers who can do the job,” says Wolfson. He also emphasized, "Because a new governor can repeal an executive order, or even just de-emphasize its implementation, legislation is the only way to ensure every office across the state knows that skills-first hiring is here to stay.” 

Building off the momentum of the last two years, in 2024, Cicero will continue educating lawmakers in several states on reforms to remove unnecessary degree requirements for public sector roles.  

Cicero has published research and policy to highlight the benefits of dropping degree requirements and identifying strategies to enact aligned policies and practices. 

“At Cicero, we’re focused on developing innovative solutions to public policy problems and want to equip bold leaders in states across the country to bring those solutions to fruition,” Wolfson explained. “We make our materials easily available and are always happy to work with government officials to solve their toughest policy challenges.” 

Cicero Institute is supported by Stand Together Trust, which provides funding and strategic capabilities to innovators, scholars, and social entrepreneurs to develop new and better ways to tackle America’s biggest problems. 

Learn more about Stand Together’s efforts to transform the future of work, and explore ways you can partner with us.

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