Goodbye degree requirements? Biden administration pushes skills-based hiring for tech talent

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The Office of Personnel Management announced on Monday that it will be reworking the policies around the 2210 job series — which covers most government tech employees — to be more skills-based.

The Biden administration is rewiring the resume requirements undergirding most of the government's IT workforce to support workers who pick up tech skills on the job, it announced Monday.

“We know that getting the best talent requires workers to be hired based on the skills they possess and their ability to learn, not just their degrees they hold,” said National Cyber Director Harry Coker, Jr. during a Monday event hosted by his office.

Skills-based hiring focuses on testing candidates for capabilities instead of relying educational credentials to qualify job-seekers. 

The Office of Personnel Management will be converting the government’s 2210 job series, which is composed of nearly 100,000 federal IT and cyber workers, to skills-based hiring. 

Specifically, the HR agency will be reviewing the qualification, classification and assessment requirements — the foundational policies of federal hiring, including things like college degrees and years of experience — for the 2210 series. 

The process is expected to be done by summer 2025, said Coker.

OPM also released new skills-based hiring guidance, largely focused on artificial intelligence talent, on Monday, and the Department of Energy announced that it would remove degree requirements from its federal IT contracts. Several private sector companies also made skills-based hiring commitments.

The announcements align with a years-long push for skills-based hiring in government dating to the Trump administration. Seeing them to fruition will likely take even more time.

Proponents of skills-based hiring say that it has the potential to open up government work to more job-seekers and help the government as it looks to hire tech, cyber and AI talent in a tight market.

Over half of the nation’s workforce doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree, according to Blair Corcoran de Castillo, Vice President for STARs policy at Opportunity@Work, a nonprofit focused on skills-based hiring.

How do you balance that speed and agility that you want to have… with that really important principle of treating everyone fairly and consistently across the board in a way that hundreds of thousands of people across the federal government have to implement?
Arianne Gallagher-Welcher, executive director for the Agriculture Department’s Digital Service.

“It sounds easy right? Like, let's move away from degree requirements,” said Rob Shriver, deputy OPM director, at the same event. “But it’s complicated.”

OPM is focusing on 2210s because the group represents the majority of the technical hires across the government, he said. Once that is done, the government’s HR agency will “prioritize what comes next and keep working on it until we transform the entire process.”

OPM has previously said it would be creating competency-based qualification standards for multiple occupations in government, previously previewing changes for IT, cybersecurity and HR jobs.

Experience vs. degree 

For now, those without higher education are often required to substitute in relevant experience in the field when applying to jobs, said Corcoran de Castillo, leading some people to screen themselves out of applying at all.

She explained that a job seeker may think,“‘It'll be easier for somebody with a degree to upload their transcript than for me to make the case that I have skills from these four jobs, right?’” 

Most agencies outside of the Pentagon also tend to try to hire experienced candidates in tech and cyber, as opposed to entry-level workers, Ron Sanders, former chair of the Federal Salary Council and longtime federal HR leader, previously told Nextgov/FCW. This leaves those interested in government service but lacking years of experience with few options.

That’s something Jorge, who got a software job at the IRS at the start of this year, has experienced personally.

He asked that his last name be withheld so that he could speak freely about his experiences and primarily spoke to Nextgov/FCW before being hired.

Getting the job, he said, “was like, the stars align, and Jupiter and Neptune are moving in orbit.”

Jorge struggled to land that early-career job in civic tech, he said, despite an undergraduate degree in biochemical and biophysical sciences and an associates degree in computer science received after he taught himself to code. 

His dream of a civic tech job dates back to the unrest over the police killing of George Floyd in 2020.

“I realized that technology can be used as a conduit for change,” he said. “I want to have an impact.”

He often found himself blocked out of jobs requiring years of experience, even up until he had two and a half years of experience from bootcamps, civic tech fellowships and private sector software engineering experience.

“I think it's the initial getting that's the hard part,” he said. “It's like a net. Some people go through… but like the vast majority of people are excluded.”

Noah Walley, a security compliance manager at IBM, also ran into barriers breaking into the government contracting — which often has degree requirements attached to jobs as well — without a college degree. 

Now 15 years into the industry, he started out as a tech hobbyist before interning for government contracting startups run by his father. 

Getting his first full-time gig in IT security in government contracting was difficult, even with a few years of experience under his belt, because of requirements for years of experience to substitute for a college degree, he said. 

“I came out the gate with some advantages that other folks may not have, and it is still quite the challenge,” he said. 

Proving qualifications

The status quo can also be difficult for those hiring.

Currently, the government commonly asks job seekers to self-assess their own qualifications, which can leave HR officials with huge pools of unqualified applicants who rate themselves as more expert than they are, as OPM itself has described

Change, however, takes work, including agencies tallying what skills are required for a given job and creating assessments to test for them.

Andrea Fletcher, chief digital strategy officer at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, has been helping run alternative assessment processes alongside the CMS Office of Human Capital because of problems with candidate quality and long hiring timelines at CMS. She calls herself a “reluctant hiring hacker.”

Called Subject Matter Expert Qualification Assessments, or SME-QA, the process involves using internal experts to interview applicants and review resumes, as opposed to relying on “self assessments.”

It can be a big ask for those experts already handling their own day jobs, but CMS has managed to hire 47 data scientists at GS-13 so far, said Fletcher.

Long-term, a culture change in risk-averse government HR offices will be necessary as such offices also deal with big-picture questions about how skills-based hiring fits into the government’s merit-based system, said Arianne Gallagher-Welcher, the executive director for the Agriculture Department’s Digital Service.

“How do you balance that speed and agility that you want to have… with that really important principle of treating everyone fairly and consistently across the board in a way that hundreds of thousands of people across the federal government have to implement?” she asked. 

“The way that we go about doing that skills based hiring is really critically important, and isn't so straightforward,” said Bill Hunt, assistant director for the Cloud Center of Excellence in the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, pointing to the potential for bias in standardized tests as an example.

Hunt himself doesn’t have a college degree, which he says has “caused pause” at times in his career, but didn’t prevent him from coming into the government after years of work in the private sector and nonprofit world.

“But I would rather err on the side of having lower barriers,” he said, “rather than leaning on convenience for HR, which is kind of where we are. And that isn't getting us the best and brightest.”

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