Massachusetts' governor leans into the skills-based hiring revolution by axing degree requirements for state jobs. The private sector is up next



On Thursday, Gov. Maura Healey (D-Mass.) signed an executive order to eliminate “unnecessary” degree requirements from most state job listings. Announcing the change in a speech at the Boston Marriott Newton, Healey expressed her hope that it would encourage the private sector to reevaluate its hiring approaches. 

Career success, she argued, shouldn’t be exclusive to Massachusetts residents with bachelor’s degrees—which is just shy of half, per the Boston Globe. This executive order “will not only expand our applicant pool, it will get us more talent,” Healey said. “Over time, it will help us build a more inclusive, skilled workforce than ever before.”

Per the new order, hiring managers must pay attention to an applicant’s “full set of competencies” beyond simply degree attainment. Going forward, no minimum education levels will be included on the listings of over 90% of state jobs at all. 

“As the state’s largest employer, we rely on a strong, diverse workforce to deliver crucial services and programs,” Healey wrote in the order. “But too many job applicants are being held back by unnecessary degree requirements.” She said she hopes the move “encourages the business community to join us by adopting similar skills-based hiring practices.”

There’s a clear and present reason the New England state is throwing out its old recruitment playbook: a persistent and chronic labor shortage. “We have so many jobs across the state that need to be filled and we have qualified, talented workers who want them,” Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll added. “We just need to lower the barriers to entry, which is exactly what this Executive Order aims to do.”

But the skills-based hiring movement is bigger than the labor shortage, too.

Why skills-first is gaining steam

Healey is the latest leader to throw her support behind the “skills-based hiring” revolution, which is quickly catching fire across both governmental institutions and the private sector. The ethos of the approach is that the actual skills required to do a job are often teachable—easily within the first six weeks of a job—and that a college degree bears shockingly little relevance to technical ability. By this line of thinking, hiring exclusively college grads is a retrograde practice that hurts both businesses and their potential talent pool. 

A host of big names have stressed the clear benefits of prioritizing skills over diplomas: former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro to longtime IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, and LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky, to name a few. 

Even those in higher ed know better than to assume the glitz of a four-year or masters degree will sway employers for long. “Do I think white-collar work will inevitably require a college degree? Absolutely not,” Harvard future of work professor Joseph Fuller told Fortune last year. “It will require certain types of technical or hard skills not necessarily indicated by college.” And Philip Cohen, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland–College Park, told Fortune that students now acknowledge the degree they’re earning isn’t a shortcut to security. 

“To be sure, pursuing education and a career is still a safer bet for your future,” Cohen said, adding that ample data shows advanced degree holders get much better job outcomes and salaries. But those benefits are “just not a guarantee anymore.”

But there’s a long way to go before skills-first is the way of the world. About 75% of U.S. jobs paying more than $35,000 a year still require a college degree, Lisa Gevelber, Google’s chief marketing officer for the Americas, told Fortune, despite the fact that just 38% of Americans are college grads. “There’s a giant mismatch,” Gevelber said. “Two-thirds of Americans—about 70 million workers—are basically locked out of all the jobs in our country.”

That mismatch harms everyone—from the workers without degrees to companies who are struggling with scant staff with specialized skills. “Everyone’s looking for people with college degrees, but only about a third of Americans have one,” Gevelber said. “And employers are looking for people with very specific kinds of skills, and they just can’t find enough of them.” 

Perhaps more moves like Healey’s would go a long way towards fixing both sides’ problems. 

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