Employers seeking to fill key jobs in an era of ultra-low unemployment increasingly wrestle with balancing scarce potential employees who check all the boxes against more-available workers who don’t meet formal requirements but can do the job.
Just as in private industry, Miami-Dade County is in that bind in keeping its 35,000 jobs filled. A new report by Mayor Daniella Levine Cava shows that 2,189 jobs have been vacant for six months or more. Setting aside outliers such as jobs left open for budgetary reasons, the right 2,189 people just can’t be hired.
That’s one reason the county is looking hard at removing four-year degree requirements from as many job categories as possible. Of the county’s 3,000 job classifications, 31% now require a four-year degree. Officials are probing how many don’t really need that much education.
The shift has begun. Last year, more than 100 county entry-level and mid-level professional classifications that had demanded four-year degrees were altered to allow those with relevant experience but not the education to take vacant jobs. This July the county pinpointed 500 more professional, managerial and executive classifications where experience could substitute for education, and 97 of those shifted requirements.
So, is this a smart move for the county to fill vital vacant jobs or the dumbing-down of a workforce? Most probably a bit of both and certainly more, a societal component.
The mayor’s report says that in addition to the tight labor market, the effort to cut educational requirements for jobs aims to “modernize our recruitment practices, expand hiring opportunities and applicant pools, and to expand promotional opportunities for our existing workforce.”
But beyond that, lower-income persons – particularly minorities – are less likely to attain four-year degrees, and only 37.9% of US adults over age 25 have bachelor’s degrees. Lowering requirements opens more doors to the non-degreed, which is admirable if they can do the jobs.
In my experience, some of the best workers in jobs normally held by degreed persons didn’t go to college. The best editor I ever worked for flunked out of college in his freshman year. One of the best reporters who ever worked for me spent his college years in a prisoner of war camp. Neither was qualified – on paper, that is – for the jobs they did so well.
On the other hand, higher education goes far beyond job skills. Higher education broadens thinking beyond a workplace. Apprenticeships or certificates in a particular field can’t replace a good liberal education, because work training is a silo and liberal arts are broad. That might be one reason Florida leaders now are trying to strengthen classical education in our universities.
But is required higher education an unnecessary barrier to many jobs? Most employers aren’t looking for scholars but people of whatever breadth of thinking who can do the job at hand well.
Broad thinking might be the ticket to promotion to the executive suite, but must it be the ticket to this job opening?
Let’s face it, many employers are now making do. Multiple household-name corporations have scratched the four-year degree off many job descriptions. None of us has ever seen a hiring market as tight as today’s, and the 1.5% unemployment in Miami-Dade County this month is below anything imagined – labor economists used to consider 4% to be full employment.
At the same time, the pandemic reduced college enrollments, and they are still below pre-pandemic levels. Some doubt they will ever reach those levels again, leaving fewer degreed candidates to fill more jobs in an expanding labor market.
So there is a practical reason to broaden the labor pool. During high unemployment in the Great Recession 15 years ago employers raised the education levels of many jobs because they had a glut of candidates. Today, with more jobs and fewer candidates, they are lowering job barriers out of necessity.
It helps employers that non-degreed workers aren’t drowning in student loan debt and are not in the highest demand, so starting salaries need not be stratospheric to attract very good non-degreed workers. If a college degree is indeed not a job necessity, removing that requirement benefits employers as well as workers.
Another inducement to hire the non-degreed is that high schools increasingly train for specific categories of jobs and offer dual enrollments where students graduate with college credits that can be combined with certificate programs to substitute for a four-year degree.
The county’s Human Resources Department is now working with Miami Dade College to see if the college’s 90 certificate credential programs can be steppingstones to county jobs now locked behind four-year-degree walls. But the mayor’s report notes that many governments in the area, including the City of Miami, have not yet taken that step – indeed, Miami Dade College itself does not accept packaged certificates in its own hiring.
The county’s exercise in examining if, how and when to lower degree barriers to jobs is timely. The pivotal question is how to balance job skills with broader education. One long-standing county practice is to shift employees on the rise from department to department, moves where wider thinking seems more vital than skills for a particular job.
Degrees are just pieces of paper. The big-picture learning that earned those degrees is what is vital.
So how can any employer – in this case, the county – promote quality organizational thinking while ensuring that any good worker, with or without that piece of paper, may compete for jobs? That’s the balancing act of ultra-full employment.