Other’s opinion: Help wanted: No college degree needed

Published 6:04 pm Thursday, November 9, 2023

Minneapolis Star

Tribune. Nov. 4

Minnesota has wisely wiped out the requirement for many government jobs.

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The labor shortage in Minnesota is real, and that is forcing some welcome and overdue changes among employers.

Among them is the state of Minnesota itself, the second-largest employer in the state. A recent executive order signed by Gov. Tim Walz will open up to 75% of state jobs to those without four-year college degrees, fulfilling what he said was a goal dating back to his days in Congress.

“Many of these are outdated descriptions,” Walz told an editorial writer. “This isn’t us dumbing things down. It’s opening things up to a much broader pool of potentially good workers.” Walz said he became intrigued with the possibilities when, as a congressman, he saw veterans with good skills unable to find jobs because they lacked a college degree.

“We put up barriers, needlessly,” Walz said, referring to employers in general. “We need to be really honest about that. It disadvantages communities of color and so many others. We’re going to do everything we can to make it right.”

Walz is right to wipe away this artificial barrier to entry that continues to rob the state of potentially strong applicants. Many prospective employees have some educational experience or hands-on experience that might otherwise qualify them.

Minnesota now joins a growing movement to remove the bachelor’s degree requirement. Late last year, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, announced that he removed the requirement from thousands of state jobs. Earlier this year, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, did the same. Private corporations including Google, Walmart, IBM and Bank of America have taken a similar approach, re-examining degree requirements as they shift to a more skills-based approach that widens the applicant pool.

There is growing recognition that the requirement for a college degree, while sometimes necessary, can also become a costly barrier to entry, locking many out of good-paying jobs they might capably perform. In a tight labor market, the requirement has proven onerous to employers as well, robbing them of potential applicants.

As far back as 2017 a Harvard Business School study detailed the negative effects of “degree inflation,” which the analysis defined as the demand for a four-year college degree — and here is the important part — for jobs that previously did not require one. Increasingly, employers had begun stipulating a college degree as the minimum education requirement, even though typically only a third of the U.S. population have such degrees.

The result, the study said, was that employers wound up paying more for college graduates to do jobs that could have been filled by non-degree holders even though “many employers also report that non-graduates with experience perform nearly or equally well on critical dimensions like time to reach full productivity, time to promotion, level of productivity, or amount of oversight required.”

Increasingly, jobs such as supervisors, sales reps, inspectors, testers and administrative assistants began to require a college degree, excluding even applicants with relevant experience.

Those most affected were the populations with lower college graduation rates, including Black and Hispanic applicants and those from lower-income families. While more than 93% of Minnesotans complete high school, an average of just 37% hold four-year degrees, similar to the national average.

According to recent U.S. c ensus data, in 2021 about 38% of Americans had a four-year degree. That figure breaks down to nearly 42% of non-Hispanic Whites, 28% of Black Americans and 20% of Hispanics. The figure is about 21% for Americans in rural areas.

Walz, himself a former teacher, said his commitment to education and to higher education is clear. “That doesn’t mean we can’t recognize that a job like graphic designer can be done well by people with years of experience but no degree.” Lifting the requirement for a four-year degree where it has not been proven necessary, he said, “is a way of paying respect for other skills individuals have acquired.”

State jobs, he noted, can provide a leg-up into the middle-class. “You’re going to get benefits, health care and a whole new range of opportunities,” he said.

College is an important and necessary requirement for some jobs, and that won’t change. Just as valid for some jobs is postsecondary education that can take the form of vocational training, associate degrees or skills certifications. Particularly in a time of a shrinking labor pool, Minnesota’s decision deserves praise. Both the state and its people will benefit.