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Employers are rethinking the need for college degrees in a tight labor market

Companies such as Google of Alphabet Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc. and International Business Machines Corp. reduced training requirements for certain positions and shifted hiring to focus more on skills and experience. Maryland lowered college degree requirements for many state jobs this year, leading to an increase in hiring, and new Pennsylvania governor Josh Shapiro campaigned for a similar initiative.

According to an analysis by the Burning Glass Institute, a think tank that is shaping the future of work. Degree requirements dropped even more at the start of the pandemic. They have since grown, but remain below prepandemic levels.

The shift comes as demand for workers remains high and unemployment is low. The number of vacancies far exceeds the number of unemployed looking for work – 10.7 million vacancies in September compared to 5.8 million unemployed – creating unusually fierce competition for workers.

The continued tight labor market has accelerated the trend that builds on a debate about the pros and cons of encouraging more people to attend four-year colleges and as organizations seek to address racial disparities in the workplace.

Some professions have universal qualification requirements, such as doctors and engineers, while others typically do not have higher education requirements, such as store associates. There is a middle ground, such as technical positions, which have different requirements depending on the industry, the company and the strength of the job market and economy.

Lucy Mathis has won a scholarship to attend a conference on women in computer science. There she learned about an IT internship at Google and eventually dropped out of her computer science bachelor’s degree to work full-time at the company. The 28-year-old now earns a six-figure sum as a system specialist.

“I discovered I had a talent for IT,” she said. “I’m not good at academics. It’s not for me.”

More than 100,000 people in the US have completed Google’s online college-alternative program, which provides training in high-growth areas such as digital marketing and project management, the company said. It and 150 other companies are now using the program to hire entry-level employees.

The majority of its U.S. positions at IBM no longer require a four-year degree after the company reviewed hiring practices, IBM spokeswoman Ashley Bright said.

Delta relaxed pilot training requirements early this year, saying a four-year college degree was preferred but no longer required for applicants.

Walmart Inc., the nation’s largest private employer, said it values ​​skills and knowledge gained through work experience, and that 75% of salaried store management in the US began their careers in hourly jobs.

“We don’t need degrees for most of our jobs in the field and increasingly in the home office as well,” Kathleen McLaughlin, Walmart’s executive vice president, said at an online event this fall. The company’s goal is to “focus the way someone has acquired their skills, that’s the degree, to what skills have they got.”

A holder of a four-year college degree has more life earnings than someone without. The lifetime income of an employee with a high school diploma is $1.6 million, while that of a bachelor’s degree holder is $2.8 million, according to a 2021 report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

But many people drop out of college and are left with debt – more than 43 million people in the US have a total of $1.6 trillion in student debt. While a college degree can provide specific workplace skills, workers can acquire the skills needed for many jobs without a four-year degree.

Black and Hispanic people are less likely to have college degrees than white and Asian people, according to the Department of Commerce. Men are less likely than women.

“While education is supposed to open doors and windows of opportunity, somehow they’ve become a means of closing opportunity,” said Nicole Smith, Georgetown’s chief economist.

The Ad Council, a nonprofit marketing organization focused on issues such as drunk driving, launched a multiyear national advertising campaign this summer aimed at reducing barriers to entry into the workforce for non-college holders. “Rethink the requirements for a bachelor’s degree and discover a world of talent,” says a bus stop poster.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan said in March that the government would review college degree requirements for every state job. State and local governments are struggling to hire workers in the tight labor market.

Six months later, Maryland said the program is showing early signs of working as intended. The number of government employees hired from May to August without a four-year degree is up 41% from a year earlier, while the number of hired workers is up 14%.

Opportunity@Work, a nonprofit that aims to lower college degrees, partnered with Maryland on its program. Bridgette Gray, the chief customer officer, said there are about 70 million Americans over the age of 25 who work today and do not have a college degree. About four million people already have high-paying careers.

“College is a clear path to upward mobility, but it shouldn’t be the only path,” she said.

Mark Townend, who leads the hiring effort for Maryland’s state jobs, said lowering the degree requirements was a way to address a social problem and make finding employees easier for the government. Mr. Townend and his team have researched and rewritten nearly 2,500 job classifications for nearly 60,000 state workers.

“We actually needed more applicants,” he said. “There’s a large population of undergraduate candidates that are good for our jobs.”

A recent Maryland job posting for an administrative officer paying up to nearly $80,000 a year said the job required a high school diploma and three years of experience. Previously, that job at the same level required four years of study.

Philip Deitchman, chief of personnel for the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, said he had previously rejected applicants without proper qualifications. The state had spec sheets with strictly defined job requirements, he said.

“We’d say, ‘Wow, we want this person,’ but they didn’t have a college degree,” he said. “I let someone pass really well.”

Governments are less flexible and have stricter requirements than the private sector, economists said, in part because they often have rules designed to curb corruption and political cronyism.

Mr Deitchman said he is seeing more applicants and higher quality applicants since the policy change.

“I prefer someone with experience,” he said. “It’s just something that should have happened years ago.”

Patricia Bruzdzinski works as an employment specialist for Maryland, helping state workers navigate health insurance and other personnel issues. Ms. Bruzdzinski said she was hired at a lower level in 2016, in part because she does not have a college degree. She said the new policy should help her advance in her career and open doors for others to get state jobs.

Ms. Bruzdzinski said online training resources and on-the-job learning have enabled her to gain new skills for her $50,000-a-year position.

“It’s also about self-education,” she said. “I listen to podcasts on Medicaid.”

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