State governments lead the way revising job requirements

For a variety of jobs, federal agencies have been removing college degree requirements in favor of experience. Turns out, state government is way ahead on this.

CORRECTION: The introduction in the audio version of this interview incorrectly identifies Justin Heck and Blair Corcoran de Castillo as affiliated with the Brookings Institution. They are actually with the organization Opportunity@Work.

For a variety of jobs, federal agencies have been removing college degree requirements in favor of experience. Turns out, state government is way ahead on this matter, according to researchers at Brookings. To discuss their findings, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with two of those researchers, Justin Heck and Blair Corcoran de Castillo who are with the organization Opportunity@Work.

Interview Transcript: 

Justin Heck  We’re with an organization called Opportunity@Work. And we’re focused on understanding workers who are skilled through alternative routes or STARS, these workers have developed skills in lots of places, whether that’s community college or military experience. And most commonly, on the job experience, STARS make up half of the labor market. And so often they have been overlooked as employers have prioritized skills developed in very specific places like four-year institutions. And so, our organization, our research is focused on helping employers policymakers, and particularly state federal governments recognize the skills that states that startups bring to the labor market.

Tom Temin Sure and I guess the college degree requirement must have grown up over the decades, simply because of the risk averse nature of governmental institutions. Is that fair to say? Blair?

Blair Corcoran de Castillo  I would say so I think there’s probably a mix of reasons, you know, the professionalization of public service roles, civil service requirements, but also just the introduction of online, you know, job applications, and just the fact that folks get inundated now with applications. And so what we found is that this wasn’t like by grand design, it was kind of as a result of, of myriad of things. And so, it’s resulted in where we are today to have an opportunity that weren’t there years ago.

Tom Temin There’s a little bit of irony in this because for decades, as well, people have been complaining about the KSA essays that were in federal applications, skills, knowledge abilities, if I got that in the right order, skills, knowledge and abilities, is what we’re talking about.

Blair Corcoran de Castillo  Ultimately it absolutely is. I think, sometimes though, in building out those cases folks have focused on proxies, as opposed to skills themselves. And so, what we’re trying to do is support federal, state and local governments in getting clear on what the skills are that are needed, regardless of where folks have built them, and what are ways to assess for those skills during the hiring process.

Tom Temin  All right, so you have written that there are some activities in this whole STARS area at the state level, tell us some of the highlights you’ve seen there.

Blair Corcoran de Castillo  So we’ve seen over 21 states make a commitment to removing degree requirements, we’ve kind of seen this in a couple of different ways. One chunk of those executive orders and legislation have been focused on immediately removing degree requirements. So, Maryland removed 50% of degree requirements, Pennsylvania 90%, another chunk of those have focused on doing reviews. So, a lot of states already have requirements where you can’t discriminate based on or you can’t assess solely on education. But that has become prioritized. So, they’ve required reports to see where degrees are required versus not. So, they can review their minimum qualifications. And finally, places like Colorado have done executive orders to transition their entire hiring system for the state to a one that’s based on skill solely. And so that’s what we’re seeing writ large. And it’s an exciting time. Because we’ve also got 25 states, I think 24 states in one territory that are a part of a National Governors Association skills in the state’s community of practice, where they’re working together to try to figure out how to take these actions, these policy actions implement them to create real change in their communities.

Tom Temin  Are there particular areas where this is effective, this idea of the STARS, abilities that come in through work and experience because say, in civil engineering, you probably need a degree program to be able to evaluate bids for a bridge, is that garter big enough? And you know, that can be a disaster. Whereas in something like cybersecurity people can acquire that skill with some certifications and some courses and a couple of years and be pretty good at it.

Justin Heck  That’s exactly right. Tom, I think one of the things that we really try to emphasize college, it’s a fantastic way of developing skills and for workers to experience mobility. It just can’t be the only way. Right. And so, there are roles that we’re seeing a lot of opportunity and progress in, specifically in regard to administrative roles, some financial roles, HR positions, and to your point, a lot of it in software related roles. We’ve found that the private sector in particular, is really thoughtful about skills when it comes to software development, right? There’s this sense that if you have the skills to do the work, do the work. And we found that state governments lagged a little bit behind in terms of recognizing accepting those skills. And we’ve seen really exciting progress specifically in the last 12 months to see degree requirements coming off of jobs and opportunities opening up.

Tom Temin  We’re speaking with Justin Heck, he’s Research Director and Blair Corcoran de Castillo, a senior director at the nonprofit opportunity at work in their stars project. Yeah, so a lot of it does see seem to center around information technology. I mean, I just have interviewed some of the service to America medalists, you know finalists for this year, and more than one of them has had an expertise that they got collegiately. One, for example, was a doctorate in mining engineering. But in so doing the work, they also develop software programs, but they weren’t professional programmers, yet that software has been promulgated and used widely throughout various industries. So, there’s almost a hybrid approach is always going to be needed, isn’t it? Blair?

Blair Corcoran de Castillo  Absolutely. What we’ve seen is that the places where folks build a lot of their skills is on the job. So as much as training programs are absolutely needed. I think that more and more public and private sector entities are recognizing the skills that have been on the job and are thinking about other ways to support folks in building the skills that they need for their jobs, once they’re in those positions.

Tom Temin  And is there anything federal agencies might be able to learn from state agencies or state organizations, in terms of how you set up a, I guess you’d say, programmatic approach to changing your job standards, because you always have to have that accountability and oversight function for any change that profound.

Blair Corcoran de Castillo  I think there are a lot of places where they can learn from each other, they start taking a purchase that makes sense based on their economies and demand, you know, what they have high need high vacancies, the federal government’s doing the same. So, they have similar challenges, but they also have different ones. And so, what we’re seeing is that there are different given the scope and scale their different approaches being taken. So one place where states could learn from the federal government is related to more shared certifications, or shared hiring pools, because one of the biggest challenges we hear in states is that it’s great, they’re moving to skills, but they’re getting inundated with applications, the federal government has already been implementing practices to show how they could do that. On the flip side, I will say that states are being really creative and thinking about assessments really broadly, and what that means for the civil service. And so, I think that’s a place where the federal government be able to learn from states.

Tom Temin  And what are some of the best practices for being able to reassure the agency oneself that the skills that the people describe really are possessed by those people, because if someone has a law degree, say, from Yale, but you can pretty much presume that they know something about the law, if they’re self-taught as a programmer, how do you know they can really program in the language you want or something like that?

Blair Corcoran de Castillo  That’s what’s exciting. I think a lot of public sector entities are trying multi hurdle, hiring processes or advancement processes by looking at their own folks. And so, they’re looking at both how people are performing within their jobs. So looking at the probationary period, and using that as part of the hiring process is the last part to see how does this person actually work in the job, but before that, they’re doing behavioral roleplay, etc., to try to get a sense for what this means in practice, because I think what Justin and I have realized is that interviewing is a skill. And some of us are really good at it. Some of us are not, but some of us are really good at a job, you know, and there are other ways for folks to assess that. So that’s what we’re saying. They’re trying to do more work-based roleplay and assessments that actually are more like what the job will be to better understand whether there’ll be successful in the role.

Tom Temin  And that sounds like good practice for whatever the source of qualification is, even if a degree.

Blair Corcoran de Castillo  Absolutely I think Justin and I would argue that if you’re going to be moving to skills-based hiring, it should be regardless of how people built their build their skills. This is for non-degree and degree candidate.

Tom Temin  The reality is this didn’t get invented yesterday at the federal or state level, though, did it? That’s exactly right.

Justin Heck  I think for a long-time employers, government, employers, private sector, employers have cared about skills, right. They want to be able to identify them and activate them. And the reality is that a vast number of stars are already successfully working in state governments in the federal government today, and often there, we find that employers say like, Oh, of course, Kevin, or Sue or Denisa like they’re great workers. We know that of course, because we’ve seen them do the job. And we found that employers find that observing a star in the job recognizing where they develop their skills is a really useful way of opening the door for other stars right having that test example of Oh, of course, so and so can do the job and there are millions more workers like this person that I know.

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