Governors Leading on Skills-Based Hiring to Open Opportunity Pathways

Skills-based hiring is a method of recruiting employees that prioritizes a candidate’s competencies over more “traditional” qualifications like degrees. This hiring strategy can remove barriers that currently screen out qualified job candidates and bring a more diverse range of perspectives and skill sets into the workforce.

Yesterday’s announcement from Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin added Virginia to the growing number of states moving toward skills-based hiring. The Commonwealth will change its hiring practices by eliminating degree requirements, preferences or both for almost 90% of state classified positions to extend opportunities to all Virginians. “On day one we went to work reimagining workforce solutions in government and this key reform will expand opportunities for qualified applicants who are ready to serve Virginians,” said Governor Youngkin. “This landmark change in hiring practices for our state workforce will improve hiring processes, expand possibilities and career paths for job seekers and enhance our ability to deliver quality services.”     

Though it is still an emerging concept, state policymakers and governors across the country are showing increasing interest in skills-based hiring. Fundamentally, skills-based hiring is a method of recruiting employees that prioritizes a candidate’s competencies over more “traditional” qualifications like degrees. This hiring strategy can remove barriers that currently screen out qualified job candidates and bring a more diverse range of perspectives and skill sets into the workforce at a time when the labor market is historically tight and there are persistent talent shortages in numerous sectors of the economy.

In April, NGA Chair New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and NGA Vice Chair Utah Governor Spencer Cox circulated a letter urging their fellow Governors to take action to implement skills-based hiring practices for government jobs in their states. “It’s a simple step that strengthens the talent pipeline into state government, sets an example for private sector employers, and opens opportunity to so many,” the Governors wrote. The Governors followed-up the letter with an op/ed in Newsweek.

With the recent addition of Virginia, the Governors of ten states – including Colorado, Maryland, Utah, Pennsylvania, Alaska, North Carolina, New Jersey, South Dakota and Ohio – have made similar announcements of this significant first step toward skills-based hiring as economic conditions and state employment needs have created a newfound sense of urgency. Although the removal of degree requirements does not immediately translate into skills-based hiring, it is a monumental and crucial step towards meaningful changes in the way individuals are selected for employment. As Governors continue to grapple with how to attract and retain top talent in public sector roles, skills-based hiring is a key strategy to open paths for a untapped talent pool to fill these critical gaps.

In Colorado,  Governor Jared Polis signed an executive order last year directing the state to align its hiring processes to look beyond college degrees and related postsecondary credentials to focus on the “. . . knowledge, skills, and abilities specific . . .” to a particular job. In this way, the state hopes to reduce “. . . potential barriers for applicants by providing a clear and specific description of skills required for each [public sector] position which can be acquired through education, training, or past experience.” With nearly 100,000 people currently employed by the state, this Executive Order aims to position Colorado to lead by example with skills-based hiring practices in upcoming fiscal years.

Colorado and Virginia are among the states participating in NGA’s Skills-Driven States Community of Practice, which focuses on the skills-based hiring ecosystem and the promising design elements of Learning and Employment Record (LER) systems.

In Maryland, former Governor Larry Hogan last year announced the elimination of four-year degree requirements for a majority of public sector jobs in the state. Similar to the efforts underway in Colorado, Maryland has worked closely with the organization Opportunity@Work (O@W) to more intentionally seek out individuals who are “skilled through alternative routes” (STARs). As former Governor Hogan noted at the time of the announcement, “. . . We are ensuring that qualified, non-degree candidates are regularly being considered for these career-changing opportunities.” O@W currently estimates that there are more than 70 million STARs in the U.S., underscoring the potential impact skills-based hiring efforts can have on the workforce of the future. Signaling his continued focus on this work, current Governor Wes Moore signed his proposed SERVE Act (Serving Every Region Through Vocational Exploration Act of 2023) on February 25, 2023. The purpose of the SERVE Act is to provide paid service year opportunities for recent high school graduates or recent graduates of a similar degree or program. During an event about the shift to skills-based hiring with Axios co-founder Mike Allen, Governor Moore said Maryland is “going to be a state that is going to create pathways to work, wages, and wealth.” In that conversation he also highlighted that the “only way to make things equitable is to be intentional.”

Late last year, Utah Governor Spencer Cox announced his state will also eliminate four-year degree requirements for many public sector careers. The state of Utah estimates that 98 percent of their public sector positions do not require a bachelor’s degree. “Degrees have become a blanketed barrier-to-entry in too many jobs. Instead of focusing on demonstrated competence, the focus too often has been on a piece of paper. We are changing that,” Cox said as part of this announcement. Through these efforts, Utah hopes to expand the potential pool of talent available to them at a time of critical labor shortages and to strengthen connections between education and career pathways and employment opportunities that do not include a four-year degree.

At the start of 2023 newly elected Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro signed an executive order on his first full day in office designed to remove the four-year degree requirement for a majority of state government jobs and directs state agencies to emphasize skills throughout the hiring process—underscoring the palpable sense of urgency surrounding skills-based hiring in states. The state estimates that this will remove the four-year degree requirement from roughly 92 percent of positions in state government—approximately 65,000 jobs according to estimates. The executive order also has launched a review of the remaining eight percent of jobs that still maintain a four-year degree requirement. As part of the announcement, Governor Shapiro’s administration also announced the creation of a new Pennsylvania Employment website. This new portal is intended to empower jobseekers to search for state employment opportunities, especially newly available roles that are now emphasizing skills and competencies over specific degrees and credentials. “Today, we are making clear that Pennsylvania is open for business, and that we are going to be leaders in economic growth, job creation, and innovation,” Governor Shapiro said as he signed the order.

The majority of Alaska state jobs no longer require a four-year degree, per an administrative order signed by Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy in February. Like other states, Alaska is experiencing a sizeable talent shortage for public sector jobs. As reported by The Hill, state labor data shows that in 2014 the State of Alaska employed 27,300 people, but that number significantly dropped to 21,900 by December 2022. Governor Dunleavy echoed other governors’ and employer sentiments when he said that “Today people can gain knowledge, skills and abilities through on the job experience. If we’re going to address our labor shortage, we have to recognize the value that apprenticeships, on-the-job training, military training, trade schools and other experience provides applicants. If a person can do the job, we shouldn’t be holding anyone back just because they don’t have a degree.”

In March, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper signed an executive order removing the degree requirements for many state jobs and clearly note that directly related experience can be a substitute for a degree in most state jobs. Also, North Carolina’s state human resource professions will also work with state Cabinet agencies to remove additional unnecessary management preferences in the agency’s hiring process. The State reports that approximately 75% of current state job classifications do not require a traditional postsecondary degree or allow experience to be used as a substitution for education. “You don’t necessarily need to have a degree to be great at your job and North Carolina is in need of talented people who can get things done,” Governor Cooper stated. “This order makes it clear that we recognize the value of work experience and don’t want the lack of higher education to be a barrier to starting or advancing in a state career.”

New Jersey Governor, and current chair of the National Governors Association, Phil Murphy signed an executive order prioritizing experience and skills over four-year degrees for certain state employment opportunities. “Every American should have the ability to attain a good job with growth opportunities and secure their place in the middle class, regardless of whether or not they have a college degree,” said Governor Murphy. “Employment qualifications for good-paying jobs in our state workforce should not exclude individuals with qualifying experience, unique skillsets, and diverse backgrounds…we open the door to that opportunity for applicants across our state, and urge other states, as well as private sector employers, to remove barriers to opportunity.”

The recent executive order issued by South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem requiring state agencies to accept work and life experiences in lieu of a postsecondary degree during the hiring process exemplifies the growing trend among governors toward skills-based hiring. “I took classes for many years, but I did not graduate with my bachelor’s degree until I was already a member of Congress,” said Governor Noem. “Not having a postsecondary degree didn’t hold me back, so I hope that qualified, dedicated South Dakotans can have those same opportunities.”

The signing of an executive order issued by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine in May, builds upon Ohio’s current policies focused on skills-based hiring practices. “The State of Ohio has been at the forefront of recognizing the importance of hiring a diverse workforce based upon the skills they bring to an employer,” said Ohio Governor Mike DeWine. “Today’s Executive Order furthers Ohio’s nationwide-leading work with unique initiatives to further our efforts to recruit the best talent regardless of academic degree.” This executive order outlines plans for a comprehensive review of public sector job classifications to remove unnecessary barriers and a connection to industry-focused career and technical education pathways as a recruitment pipeline. 

With the increasing recognition of its potential benefits, many Governors are clearly considering skills-based hiring state policies to support wider workforce and economic development goals in their states. These efforts have also likely been driven, at least in part, due to a wider recognition that traditional forms of hiring—that often rely on degrees and other familiar credentials—can inadvertently lead and reinforce inequities in the economy and diminish economic dynamism. As Governors and states continue to seek out ways to increase economic opportunity, these initiatives may only be the beginning of a wider trend amongst states seeking to reimagine talent development.

In response to these moves by governors, the NGA Center for Best Practices has developed a project focused on skills-driven pathways. This initiative is supporting a cohort of states in planning skills-focused credential pathways and connecting this through skills-based hiring efforts. The project, Skills-Driven States, is also examining the ways in which technology and state data strategy can drive innovation and can put states on the cutting edge of skills-based practices. Gubernatorial leadership on this issue brings states to the table as an employer and provides the opportunity for public sector hiring practices to be a national blueprint for inclusion and innovation in response to workforce shortages.

This article was developed by Amanda Winters, NGA Center for Best Practices. For more information on Governors’ work on skills-based hiring please contact AWinters@NGA.ORG.