Workforce shortage has states rethinking degree requirements

There were nearly 1 million unfilled positions in state and local governments as of December.
FILE – Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks to reporters during a news conference at the state Capitol, April 28, 2022, in Juneau, Alaska. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer, File)

State governments seeking to fill hundreds of thousands of jobs are reconsidering whether they need to require new workers to hold college degrees, as they search for new ways to address a crisis of open positions likely to get worse as baby boomers retire.

On Tuesday, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) issued an executive order removing college degree requirements from most state jobs. His order follows moves by governors in Maryland, Colorado, Pennsylvania and Utah to open thousands of jobs to workers who have not obtained a college degree.

“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,” Dunleavy said in a statement announcing the order. “If a person can do the job, we shouldn’t be holding anyone back just because they don’t have a degree.”

In Pennsylvania, new Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) used his first full day in office to order an end to college degree requirements for thousands of state jobs. The order would apply to 92% of all state jobs, Shapiro said — including 550 positions that are currently unfilled.

“My view is if you’re qualified for the job, then you should get the job here in Pennsylvania. Degree requirements that reward folks who pursue one of these paths while shutting out those who pursue others hurts us all,” Shapiro said at a press conference last month.

Across the nation, state and local governments had about 928,000 unfilled positions in December, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That figure is up about 50% from the number of open state and local government positions BLS reported in December 2019, just before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Virtually every sector of state government faces massive worker shortages. More than a third of the openings are in education positions alone. States have also struggled to hire workers in corrections and law enforcement, health care, and even administrative positions where employees help constituents get business or driver’s licenses or other state services.

“Everywhere we would go, everyone would want to talk about the labor shortage,” said Mike Ricci, who served as communications director to former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), whose administration cut degree requirements in its final months in office. “It was an issue of not enough people to meet new challenges.”

State governments find themselves in increasing competition with the private sector, in which about 10 million jobs are open — while just 5.7 million Americans are unemployed and seeking work.

While private sector firms can unilaterally raise wages, salary growth in public sector jobs is far slower. In the last several years, governors across the nation have proposed substantial pay raises for teachers and public workers in an effort to stanch the exodus from government jobs.

That exodus is compounded by an aging workforce staffed by baby boomers who are at or nearing retirement age, said Marina Zhavoronkova, a senior fellow for workforce development at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.

“We have in many occupations an aging workforce. In state government in particular, staff tends to stay for a long time,” Zhavoronkova said. “It is hard to hire. The bureaucracy of these hiring processes are often entrenched.”

Cutting degree requirements alone will not be sufficient to solve the state government workforce challenge, Zhavoronkova said. State workers are already unusually well-educated — statistics show 57% of state workers hold bachelor’s degrees, compared with just 36% of private sector workers.

That means states have to go further than simply reducing requirements in order to attract new workers, she said.

“They need to diversify their recruitment practices. They can’t just say if you build it they will come,” Zhavoronkova said. “Investments in wages and total compensation for all staff has to go alongside recruitment and training.”