New Trump EO urges agencies to prioritize skills over college degrees in federal hiring

Having a college degree will no longer guarantee a candidate a spot on a certification list for a federal job, according to a new executive order from the Trump administration.

The executive order, which President Donald Trump signed Friday at a meeting of the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board, urges agencies to use skills-based assessments — rather than education credentials and written questionnaires — to evaluate and vet job candidates.

Specifically, the EO requires agencies, at the direction of the Office of Personnel Management and Office of Management and Budget, to review and revise all job classification and qualification standards in the competitive service.

The order doesn’t completely eliminate the college degree requirement in federal hiring. It simply calls on agencies to shift their priorities when choosing candidates to hire and allows agencies to set minimum education requirements for positions only where it’s legally required by a state or locality.

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Some occupations, such as medical professionals or attorneys, need college and graduate-level degrees and other licenses. But for other occupations, the need for a college degree “is far less clear,” said Michael Rigas, acting OPM director and acting deputy director for management at OMB.

“Today a college degree or a graduate degree is necessary to work in many of these occupations,” he told reporters Friday morning. “For many other fields though, those without a degree are at a major disadvantage in the federal hiring process.”

According to the order, OPM and agencies have 120 days to review job classification and qualification standards and an additional 60 days to make those changes public.

The executive order also calls on agencies to expand their use of skills-based assessments when choosing and vetting candidates.

It charges OPM with ensuring that “agencies assess candidates in a manner that does not rely solely on educational attainment to determine the extent to which candidates possess relevant knowledge, skills, competencies and abilities.”

OPM and agency heads have 180 days to develop or identify these assessments, according to the executive order.

Many agencies already use online assessments to test a candidate’s knowledge or skills in a particular field. OPM itself, through its USA Hire platform, offers its own skills-based assessments to agencies, often for a fee.

“The federal government should also welcome job-seekers with needed skills, regardless of how they acquired them. Employment and advancement based on ability is the underlying principle of the civil service. By hiring based on the skills and competencies of job-seekers, the civil service will create a more merit-based system.

Beyond the use of more skills-based assessments, the EO also encourages agencies to deploy their own subject matter experts to help evaluate candidates.

The Trump administration found some success with a pilot project on this practice last year. Under a pilot from OPM and the U.S. Digital Service, subject matter experts became involved in the hiring process. SMEs conducted interviews to determine who was qualified and who wasn’t — before applying veterans preference.

The pilot was due to expand this year, according to a December update on Performance.gov.

Trump’s EO is the latest attempt by the federal government to improve the hiring process, which agency chief human capital officers, good government groups and most recently a national, congressionally-chartered commission, have all deemed overly burdensome, frustrating and often inadequate.

“The federal job classification and qualification framework was put in place decades ago, well before the onset of the 21st century,” Rigas said. “A lot’s changed since then. Education has changed; the nature of work itself has changed. But federal hiring has largely been unchanged.”

The EO itself describes how private sector employers have prioritized skills over educational attainment in hiring in recent years. The federal government, the EO said, has fallen behind and needs a “more efficient approach.”

“Employers adopting skills- and competency-based hiring recognize that an over-reliance on college degrees excludes capable candidates and undermines labor-market efficiencies,” the order reads. “Degree-based hiring is especially likely to exclude qualified candidates for jobs related to emerging technologies and those with weak connections between educational attainment and the skills or competencies required to perform them. Moreover, unnecessary obstacles to opportunity disproportionately burden low-income Americans and decrease economic mobility.”

With each passing year, the Trump administration has placed a growing emphasis on using skills-based assessments to screen and hire talent in recent years.

Agencies have often complained that because job applicants can self certify their own skills and abilities, they often end up with a list of candidates who are ultimately unqualified for the position.

For that reason, 40% of federal job certification lists go unfilled, a senior administration official said.

Last September, OPM urged agencies to cut back on the use of self-rated questionnaires to assess a candidates’ skills and abilities. Roughly 20% of hiring managers who took a 2015 OPM survey rated self questionnaires and assessment tools to measure candidates’ proficiency as “poor.”