On Friday, President Trump signed an executive order directing federal agencies to fill job vacancies based on merit, rather than require a minimum level of education for candidates seeking open positions. The order rightly recognizes that a job candidate with several years of relevant experience may be just as qualified, if not more so, than one who has collected a stack of advanced degrees.
“Employers adopting skills- and competency-based hiring recognize that an overreliance on college degrees excludes capable candidates and undermines labor-market efficiencies,” the order reads. “Currently, for most Federal jobs, traditional education — high school, college, or graduate-level — rather than experiential learning is either an absolute requirement or the only path to consideration for candidates without many years of experience.”
The order still allows federal agencies to prescribe minimum educational requirements for job candidates if the degree is legally required by the state or local government where the federal employee will be working. Additionally, they may consider a candidate’s education if the degree “directly reflects the competencies necessary” to do the job.
In other cases, agencies must fill job openings based on the “specific skills and competencies” that the positions require. An agency seeking a computer programmer will not be allowed to turn away a candidate with several years of relevant programming experience simply because he hasn’t had the time or money to go back to school for a master’s degree.
Instead, federal agencies will develop assessment practices to determine a candidate’s skills and qualifications for the job. These may take the form of formal skills tests or some other means of assessment, but cannot rely only on job candidates’ self-evaluations of their skills. Changes to job classification and qualification standards will take effect within 180 days.
The administration’s move strikes a blow against credential inflation, the phenomenon of increasing education requirements for job openings even though the skills required to do those jobs have not meaningfully changed. A 2017 Harvard Business School report found that postings for dozens of common jobs now typically request bachelor’s degrees, even though a majority of people currently working in those jobs do not have a college education. Examples of jobs that have suffered from credential inflation include lower-level managers, secretaries and administrative assistants, and child care workers.
Credential inflation shuts out experienced, qualified job candidates who are perfectly capable of filling certain roles simply because they lack the right piece of paper. It also deprives employers of a pool of talent. Most perniciously, it convinces young jobseekers that they need a bachelor’s degree or even a graduate degree to succeed in the labor market, forcing them to spend tens of thousands of dollars and years of their lives pursuing unnecessary credentials.
The federal government has been among the worst drivers of credential inflation. Nearly 30% of federal workers now have a master’s degree, up from just 15% a quarter century ago. Though degree requirements for private sector jobs have also increased, credential inflation in the federal civil service has been especially pronounced. As the nation’s largest single employer, it’s fitting for the federal government to lead the way in questioning whether such intensive education requirements are necessary.
People with lower levels of education have been hit hardest by the current recession. Unemployment rates for those without college degrees have soared into the double digits. Historically, credential inflation has accelerated during recessions as employers take advantage of the weak labor market to ratchet up degree requirements on open job postings. This makes it even harder for people without college degrees to find well-paying jobs.
It doesn’t have to be that way again. Governments and private employers alike should recognize that unnecessary degree requirements are not just unfair to qualified workers without sheepskins, but also a self-inflicted handicap on their own ability to find great employees in the broadest talent pool possible. The administration’s executive order is an important first step toward reversing credential inflation in the federal civil service and in the broader labor market. Hopefully other employers will follow.