Youngkin gets it right in stripping degree preferences from most state job postings

It was not only a long-overdue break for people who’ve had to hustle harder to get ahead, it was a smart, early recognition of and accommodation for the workforce of the future.

June 12, 2023 12:04 am

Gov. Glenn Youngkin delivers the State of the Commonwealth to the Virginia General Assembly Jan. 11, 2023. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

Mama would approve.

So would millions of others who are among the smartest, most experienced, best-qualified people who never got the job of their dreams because they never got a college degree.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin did the good and right thing recently when he waived the requirement for or at least a prevailing bias favoring college degrees for tens of thousands of Virginia state government jobs. It was not only a long-overdue break for people who’ve had to hustle harder to get ahead, it was a smart, early recognition of and accommodation for the workforce of the future.

The administrative policy change that takes effect July 1 means that for 90% of the classified job openings that state agencies advertise, bachelor’s or graduate-level college degrees will no longer be required, nor will holders of those degrees enjoy a head start in vying for those jobs.

Putting aside the egalitarian appeal of the governor’s action, it comes partly in response to a shortage of available labor, a lingering consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Scrapping the degree requirement will automatically boost applicant pools, perhaps significantly.

“When we grew up, we had five people applying for every two jobs,” said Virginia Labor Secretary Bryan Slater. “Now, it’s more like there are two people for every five jobs.”

“The focus now is going to be on looking for work experience, skills and training,” he said.

Virginia becomes the eighth state to adopt such a policy in hiring for government jobs. It began in Maryland a year ago when former Gov. Larry Hogan, like Youngkin a Republican, put it in place. Six other states followed suit before Youngkin, with political ambitions beyond Capitol Square, made the announcement late last month.

The change doesn’t ban degreed applicants from being hired. Agency hiring managers aren’t being told to blackball those with sheepskins and reflexively side with those high school graduates, Slater said. They will have the discretion to pick someone, for instance, with five years’ relevant employment experience, good references and a key certification or two over someone with no work experience but a degree from good ol’ State U.

The fact is that the most coveted qualifications in today’s job market increasingly dominated by information technology are disciplines that traditional colleges and universities rarely satisfy. If it’s a good starting salary and advancement options you want these days, your best bet is certifications in online networking, coding, cybersecurity and IT systems management. Plumbers and electricians certified by vocational and technical schools do well for themselves, too, while liberal arts majors too often wind up moving in with mom and dad.

According to the Virginia Department of Human Resources Management, about 57,000 of Virginia’s approximately 100,000 state employees are “classified.” Youngkin’s change applies to all but about 5,700, or one-tenth, of those classified employees whose positions are in regulated occupations or professions such as law, accounting and engineering that require degrees.

A few critics complain that Youngkin’s action is “anti-higher education,” but that argument finds little sympathy as more of the country’s college-bound future workforce questions the value of a four-year degree that burdens them with staggering debt as they struggle to find full-time employment in their major field of study.

Mom was the salutatorian of her high school graduating class. She was scary smart but never went to college. She read books faster than some folks finished a pack of cigarettes, and had remarkable recall of the material. She could step in as a substitute teacher and know more about the subject matter than some of the degreed educators she supported. In her later years, she found her passion as a literacy volunteer, tutoring elementary school pupils the farthest behind their grade level in reading and, when she was done, had them reading on par with or better than their classmates, keeping alive their dreams of ending generational illiteracy and poverty.

College degrees have become boilerplate in most every job posting, but that wasn’t always true. My wife is a good example. In her late twenties, she became the first woman vice president of a major Texas-based data processing company after she applied for a job requiring two years of data processing experience or a computer science degree. Now, she would be excluded from consideration even for the positions of those she hired, fired, trained and managed.

I was the first in my family to get a college degree a bachelor’s degree in journalism and I am proud of it. My classmates included future Pulitzer Prize winners. But I learned early on that the most essential lessons needn’t come from textbooks or lectures.

I was interviewing for my first job as editor of a small Mississippi Delta weekly. The paper’s owner asked me what the most important job of a newspaper was. Brimming with a headful of lofty academic folderal that came with my new degree, I expounded on the “social responsibility” model in which the press assumes the duty of elevating matters of public import to the level of community discussion and debate.

Wham! The late John Emmerich, a legendary newspaperman raised in a venerated Mississippi newspapering family, slammed his palm on his desk and cut me off.

“No, damn it! The first job of a newspaper is to make money! You can’t do any of those things if you can’t make money!” he said, delivering in seven seconds a lesson more foundational than any I had learned the prior four years.

I left the interview shaken but I got the job, maybe in spite of my degree.

The changing employment culture of the world, not just the United States, will reward the nimble who best leverage their experience and adapt fastest to markets that literally move at electric speed. Employers are recognizing that people with those skills shouldn’t go to the back of the line behind degree holders.

Good on you, Governor Youngkin, for doing something about it sooner than most.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]