What might a former bartender, factory worker, and arcade technician have in common? They all work for the government in cybersecurity roles.
While that may not be many people’s first guess, it reflects a growing reality. Today, more individuals from nontraditional backgrounds—those with diverse skill sets and varying levels of higher education—are joining the public sector workforce.
Partly due to a conscious focus on skills (rather than just degrees), more organizations are adopting a “skills-first” approach to hiring and workforce planning. The crux of the idea? Skills matter more than where or how an individual gained them.
Today’s shifting talent landscape
Skills-first or skills-based hiring has been gaining momentum among employers. In 2023, more than 45% of employers on LinkedIn explicitly used skills data to fill their roles (12% more than the previous year), and about a fifth of job postings in the United States no longer require degrees.1
Skills-based hiring could present an opportunity for the public sector to address one of its biggest workforce challenges—attracting new talent. The fierce competition for talent, fueled by the lowest unemployment rates in over 50 years,3 has disproportionately affected the public sector. Nearly a million government jobs are open in the country, the vast majority being in state and local agencies.4 State and local governments continue to face severe labor shortages that recent retirements and resignations have intensified. At the same time, degree requirements can prevent workers without college degrees—most US workers5—from accessing government jobs. Skills-based hiring can open the door for those who are “skilled through alternative routes” such as technology boot camps, community college, or prior work experience.
Data also suggests that searching for workers with relevant skills (that is, “skills-first” talent) can lead to a tenfold increase in eligible candidates,6 so it may come as no surprise that federal agencies and 14 states (and counting) have taken steps to move toward skills-based hiring practices to expand the public sector talent pool (figure 1).7
The US Office of Personnel Management (OPM) recently released guidance on the federal government’s adoption of skills-based hiring practices.8 This is a notable step for federal hiring, which has historically relied on candidates’ educational credentials and self-assessments to gauge their ability to perform jobs. In the official press release, OPM director Kiran Ahuja stated, “By focusing on what an applicant can do—and not where they learned to do it—skills-based hiring will expand talent pools by making it easier for applicants without a bachelor’s degree to demonstrate their skills and will help remove barriers to employment for historically underrepresented groups.” The agency is also working on a policy for skills-based classification and qualifications that will cover multiple occupation series.9
In 2022, the state of Maryland loosened requirements for formal education in over half of its 38,000 roles to increase efficiency in government hiring, helping state agencies to find more talent in a tight labor market, with the goal of “leaving no skilled worker behind.”10 While it may be too early to predict outcomes, there are signs of success, with a 41% increase in state government hires who do not have a degree and a 14% increase in all employees hired overall.11
Similarly, the state of Colorado adopted a skills-based hiring approach for state government jobs in 2022 to “build a more diverse workforce by promoting the hiring of individuals from varied backgrounds and work experiences.” Some counties and agencies within the state, which had already adopted similar practices, have reported an expanded talent pool.12
Utah and Pennsylvania are also taking steps to implement similar initiatives designed to enlarge the talent pool, streamline the hiring process, and build a diverse workforce.13
The departure from traditional methods of defining and assessing applicant qualifications will likely require mindset, cultural, and institutional shifts among hiring managers, government organizations, and the broader workforce. Government agencies now face the task of crafting an equitable system that recognizes and appropriately weighs skills and experience alongside educational attainment, which can be challenging. Furthermore, the distributed and autonomous nature of state agencies often creates a demanding environment to deploy innovative skills-based hiring solutions.
Putting a skills-first approach into practice
Reducing degree requirements to move towards a skills-based hiring model represents a fundamental change that could affect the talent life cycle. Agencies should define a strategy for change that can help them navigate the complexity of the shift.
Expand recruiting efforts
Skills-based hiring can expand the talent pool that public sector agencies can draw from, but to take advantage of this, organizations should widen the radius within which they source talent. Internships and apprenticeships can both be effective ways to connect with a broader pool of applicants.
Working with community colleges and alternate skill providers such as boot camps can also help build a pipeline of young talent, especially around specialized skill sets such as IT. Chief Information Officer Ed Toner has been recruiting a steady stream of interns from Southeast Community College since 2017 to work alongside IT staff in different areas in Nebraska.14
Similarly, Texas works with local universities on experiential learning programs like boot camps, which often serve as a source of reskilled midcareer workers.16 Recruiting reskilled workers often provides a unique advantage as they possess a combination of transferable and technical skills. For example, workers with prior teaching experience and recently acquired IT skills can be well-suited to conduct training programs, or those with previous customer service experience might also excel in technology-service roles.
In the IT field, it’s not just four-year degree requirements that can be barriers for applicants but also certain certifications. For example, a Certified Information Systems Security Professional is an industry credential that can take years to earn. Recognizing that it might be an unreasonable prerequisite for entry-level workers, North Dakota dropped the requirement from some jobs.17 Additionally, the state is also looking to expand its apprenticeship programs that support both high school and college students, which have an impressive 80% job placement rate.18
Employ skills-first job postings
Job postings can often be misleading in how they describe the experience required. For example, what may seem like a medical role might, in fact, be more communication- or customer service–oriented. When the El Paso County Public Health Department in Colorado was recruiting contact tracers during the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency’s job description stated it required medical experience when that wasn’t the case. In collaboration with a local workforce center, the agency updated the job description to reflect the core skills needed—communication and customer service—and was able to staff 100 contact tracers.19
Addressing such mismatches can help state and local agencies attract talent. Notably, in fields like public health, positions like community health workers often require a greater focus on soft skills like empathy, ties to the community, lived experience, and basic training than a four-year degree.20
A skills-based job posting should look different from a traditional job posting beyond just replacing unnecessary credential requirements. It involves analyzing the job, breaking it down into desired competencies, and then describing what each competency means for the job. Bucketing skills into required (must-have on day 1) and preferred (will provide on-the-job training to develop) can also offer candidates the clarity they need to apply for a position confidently.
Evolve hiring processes
During a typical hiring process, human resources screens candidates based on prior experience and qualifications that align with traditional job requirements. Interviews are often structured to emphasize experience obtained through conventional academic institutions. Managers tend to rely on familiar frameworks that value acquiring college degrees instead of the knowledge, skills, and abilities gained through alternative methods. Removing degree requirements can affect all these actions and evaluations at each step of the hiring process.
In many cases, evaluating candidates based on skills may require a new screening and validation process. This could include a questionnaire that can help identify how candidates have used a particular skill, in what situation and to what degree, a previous work product or sample, or an assignment that assesses a specific competency. Providing hiring managers with the resources and guidance to adopt these changes will be important. In Colorado, for example, 90% of state positions now have a defined equivalency for educational attainment, making it easier for applicants and hiring managers to navigate the process.22
As organizations review their jobs and job-classification system, they should consider which roles may still require a degree and which ones do not. Highly technical positions that require extremely specialized knowledge (such as scientific researchers, health care professionals, engineers, and others) will likely continue to require advanced degrees due to the nature of those jobs. Additionally, a degree may be necessary as determined by statute or regulation (such as attorneys, accountants, nurses, and other regulated professions).
Emphasize onboarding, training, and growth
Historically, onboarding and development curriculums have relied on learners possessing a standard set of competencies obtained through external training providers, whether institutions of higher education or workforce development programs. When shifting to a skills-first model, organizations should closely align the instructional design to the individual employee’s strengths and areas for improvement within a given skill set.
Some states tap into models like work-based learning that heavily focus on on-the-job training. In a survey of state and local government HR managers, 20% reported hiring below minimum qualifications for posthiring upskilling.23
For example, the State Earn and Learn program in Indiana provides opportunities for work-based learning, where participants work in IT roles and learn on the job. Jon Rogers, the program’s architect, and director of strategic workforce planning at the Indiana Office of Technology, considers himself a “skills-based hire” with a background in sports coaching, teaching, congressional staff work, and workforce planning at the Central Intelligence Agency.24 According to Rogers, the state is seeing “the power of workplace learning over a 12-month program to bring great citizens in who are passionate about public sector IT careers at a time when they are critically needed.”25 The program has attracted individuals with varied backgrounds, including cooks, truck drivers, factory workers, mail carriers, teachers, and grocery store employees, and has placed them in roles involving penetration testing, vulnerability management, customer service, operational administration, and cloud. As of 2023, the Indiana Office of Technology has hired almost 50 associates from the program.26
As government leaders review their training practices, they should consider the challenges workers may face as they advance in their careers. Specifically, organizations should consider developing infrastructure that can support employee career advancement with additional certifications, mentorship, rotation opportunities, credentials, or degrees, as well as flexible work arrangements and tuition support, to encourage their progression into more senior roles.
Looking forward: Creating a sustainable talent pipeline
The transition associated with a shift to skills-based hiring and employment practices is likely significant. Yet the potential gains realized through an expanded talent pool, a more equitable and sustainable workforce, and an increasingly agile set of employee skills can demonstrate the value of early adoption of these practices.
For government agencies looking to reduce degree requirements for their workforce, here are some steps to consider that can support the shift to skills-based practices:
- Assess the current state of degree requirements and job descriptions and consult with legal counsel to determine which positions require degrees based on regulatory and other considerations.
- Convene stakeholders to discuss the merits of a skill-based hiring program and current internal viewpoints.
- Evaluate the training needs of hiring managers to support the adoption of skills-based hiring practices statewide.
- Solicit feedback from nondegree-holding employees across various stages of the talent life cycle and job classifications to better understand opportunities for increased support.
- Collect feedback from HR and hiring managers to help understand recruitment pain points better and where loosening the degree requirements may align with talent acquisition strategy.
- Identify opportunities to work with community-based organizations, trade programs, and technical schools around recruiting and workforce development.
- Learn through action by leveraging pilots to drive iterative change across state or local agencies.
These considerations can support government organizations in building a more efficient, equitable, and diverse workforce. At the same time, agencies should look to develop strategies to address potential pitfalls that might slow down their progress. Some consequences to be wary of include the following:
Inability to handle a flood of additional applicants
While the goal of reducing degree requirements is widening the pool of applicants for public sector jobs, there can be such a thing as too much success. For example, certain states and cities have witnessed a massive surge in job applicants, straining the resources available to process and validate them and slowing down the hiring process.27 Technological solutions like applicant-tracking systems or artificial intelligence tools can alleviate some of the pressures on HR but can open doors to more unintended consequences like confirmation bias. For example, one technology company stopped using its AI recruiting tool after discovering it was biased against female applicants. The tool, trained on a decade’s worth of resumes, favored male applicants in an industry historically dominated by men.
Although technology and the ability to be aware of and weed out bias has improved today, anticipating the unintended consequences and downstream effects of process changes will likely be necessary for government organizations going down this path.
The federal government has introduced the use of “shared certificates,” which has enabled agencies to share their lists of unhired but screened and qualified candidates with other agencies with similar needs.28 The US General Services Administration piloted this with the US Department of Health and Human Services to hire acquisition officers in 2022.29 This approach has several benefits, including reducing the time agencies take to hire and creating more opportunities for applicants, even though they applied only once.30
Policy changes without culture change
Data shows that while over 80% of employers believe they should hire based on skills rather than degrees, more than half say they are still hiring college graduates because it feels less risky.31 Although the technology, information, and media industry had a 240% faster growth rate in job posts without professional degree requirements, actual hires of individuals without degrees grew by a marginal 3%.32 This demonstrates the mismatch between beliefs and behaviors that can arise if decades-old hiring policies are modified without appropriate training and guidance for hiring managers and creating the culture change needed to help new practices to succeed.
To contribute to culture change, Colorado collaborated with an organization on a nonprofit project to offer employers in the state, including government agencies, training on shifting to skills-based hiring practices. In 2018, pilot projects were launched with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, the unemployment insurance division, and the state’s department of health care policy and financing that provided hands-on training and guidance on how to implement skills-based job postings, mentor programs for new hires, revamping screening and onboarding programs, etc.33
Not planning for the long term
If skills are to become the language of work and the workplace, organizations should have the infrastructure to support a skills-based approach. This includes elements like a data-based skills map or taxonomy, training, and reskilling opportunities, and skill-focused pathways for career advancement, which can empower organizations to mobilize skill sets existing within their workforce.
Often the largest employer in a state or region, the government can positively influence workplace practices in the broader labor market by setting a precedent for other employers. As work and workplaces evolve, so should hiring and employment practices—not just so that the public sector can deliver on its mission but also to open doors for skilled workers seeking opportunity and upward mobility.