Hiring Skills vs Hiring a Degree: What The Rise in Skill-based Hiring Means for the Public Sector

Skill-based hiring is on the rise in the private sector. Organizations like Google, Apple, Costco, Whole Foods, Hilton and Nordstrom are moving away from degree-hiring to skill-based hiring.  

Does that mean a degree is worthless? No. It just means organizations are recognizing that non-degree employees can offer just as much value as degreed employees. As Maggie Stilwell of Ernst and Young explains, “Academic qualifications will still be taken into account and indeed remain an important consideration when assessing candidates as a whole, but will no longer act as a barrier to getting a foot in the door.”

In the public sector, many jobs still require a college degree. How can a shift towards skill-based hiring benefit the public sector?

What is Skill-Based Hiring?

Many employers equate a degree to skills. Therefore, they follow a degree-based hiring strategy. But this focus on hiring degreed employees leads to tunnel vision. There are many non-degree candidates with excellent skills who become invisible in the job market. As a result, an entire pool of talent is overlooked.

Skill and merit-based hiring focuses on hiring candidates based on their experience, skillset and competencies, irrespective of whether they possess a degree.

What Does This Trend Mean for Public Sector Organizations?

The federal government is the nation’s largest employer, employing more than 2 million civilian workers. Many federal jobs require a degree as a minimum education requirement.

In June 2020, legislation was passed that required federal agencies to reduce the number of minimum education requirements. In other words, the government wants federal agencies to adopt more skill-based recruitment practices, except for positions where education requirements, like degrees, are legally mandated.

The decision was welcomed as skill-based hiring can benefit public sector organizations in the following ways.

1. Gain Access to a Greater Talent Pool

There are more people without degrees than with degrees. One study found that degree requirements rule out as much as 70% of American adults above the age of 25. And the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports that approximately 36 million Americans have some college experience but no degree.

When you remove ‘degree’ from your job requirements, it opens you up to a larger pool of talent.

For instance, the demand for digital skills is likely to increase as more public sector organizations embrace new technologies. There are many tech workers who are self-taught or completed short courses to enhance their skills. Your ideal candidate may be among those.

2. Build a More Diverse Workforce

More low-income families exist in minority groups in America than in the white population. In many cases, these families simply can’t afford the cost of higher education. The lack of a degree may not be due to poor academic ability but rather poor economic circumstances.

Removing the degree requirement means more candidates from disadvantaged groups can apply for public sector jobs. That can boost diversity in your organization. A more diverse workforce creates a positive internal and external image and better serves a diverse constituency.  

3. Increase Internal Hiring

Merit-based hiring also extends to internal employees. Public sector employees who don’t possess a degree may feel stuck in their job and see few opportunities to advance. This can lead to low morale.

When a degree is no longer the main yardstick to measure candidates, it allows you to tap into a talent pool right under your nose – your current employees. You may have some promising employees who, with the right training, can excel in a more senior role.

With more opportunities to advance within the organization, employees will be less likely to seek greener pastures and your employee retention rates will improve.

When are Degrees More Important Than Skills?

Adopting more skill-based hiring is not in any way dismissing the importance of a degree. Organizations need to balance both strategies.

Not every job can be filled by unqualified candidates. Would you want an uneducated surgeon operating on you or to fly in a plane designed by an unqualified engineer? For certain professions, degrees are a must. It provides vital theoretical knowledge to perform a job correctly. Furthermore, an advanced degree, like a master’s or doctorate, can also provide additional skills that can be applied to strategic leadership positions.

How Will Public Sector Organizations Implement Skill-Based Hiring?

Implementing skill-based hiring won’t happen overnight. This may be new ground for some public sector organizations and it may take time to adapt current recruitment processes or implement new ones.

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management in consultation with the heads of federal agencies will be developing recommendations on how to implement skill-based hiring. This may include:

  • Updating recruitment processes and software systems.
  • Amending recruitment policies.
  • Developing new selection tools such as skills and competency tests.
  • Training HR personnel and heads of departments in skill-based hiring practices.

Key Takeaways

The shift towards skill-based hiring doesn’t do away with degree-based hiring. Both are needed to build a competent workforce. Relaxing degree requirements simply levels the employment playing fields so that everyone with relevant skills has a fair shot.

In the public sector, many jobs still require a college degree. How can a shift towards skill-based hiring benefit the public sector?
Hiring Skills vs Hiring a Degree: What The Rise in Skill-based Hiring Means for the Public SectorDOWNLOAD
Regina W. Romeo

Ms. Romeo has more than 20 years of experience in public sector human resources as an analyst, manager and director. In her role as Chief Human Resources Officer, she is responsible for managing the day-to-day HR operations and organizational development for CPS while also consulting and managing special projects for clients. Regina has worked for both large and small public sector agencies and brings a unique perspective and real-world experience to her role.

About CPS HR Consulting

CPS HR Consulting is a self-supporting public agency providing a full range of integrated HR solutions to government and nonprofit clients across the country.  Our strategic approach to increasing the effectiveness of human resources results in improved organizational performance for our clients.  We have a deep expertise and unmatched perspective in guiding our clients in the areas of organizational strategy, recruitment and selection, classification and compensation, and training and development.