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Feds nix college degree requirement for merit-based hiring

President Trump has ordered federal agencies, which employ 2.2 million, to move to merit-based hiring by the end of the year. This may require an HR technology upgrade.

President Trump signed an executive order making federal hiring "merit-based," which means skills and competency for a job will take precedence over a college degree for many types of jobs.

In making this change, the White House believes it is playing catch-up to the private sector. "An overreliance on college degrees excludes capable candidates," Trump's order stated. It was signed June 26.

But the change to merit-based hiring may become a monumental task for federal agencies. It might mean rewriting job ads that emphasize competencies over degrees, as well as adopting technology that can translate an applicant's experience into skills.

"This is a change with far greater implications than might even seem obvious on the surface," said Donald Kettl, a professor at the University of Texas Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.

Kettl said the executive order may prompt more interest in AI-type systems to scan applications and match candidates with jobs. It also will be "an opportunity for consultants who can help agencies meet the new challenges of this executive order," he said.

The U.S. government employs about 2.2 million civilian workers. Agencies have 180 days, or until the end of the year, to implement the order.

Merit-based hiring and skills

"A far bigger issue is the identification of the skills that positions require," Kettl said. 

"Agencies will have to develop new, more detailed, and more tailored descriptions for each position," he said. "There's a lot to be said about coupling position descriptions with agency missions. But this will be a very big step, and it will have to be taken in a very short time."

This is a change with far greater implications than might even seem obvious on the surface.
Donald KettlProfessor, University of Texas Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs

Kevin Parker, CEO at HireVue Inc., believes the change to merit-based hiring can have positive social benefits. The degree requirement "excludes large sections of the workforce, particularly in the underserved and communities of color," he said. "When you are white or you're Asian, you have a 20% higher likelihood of even having a college degree."

The change will mean that agencies will look at competencies, such as an ability to work on a team or to learn -- those sorts of characteristics, Parker said. HireVue, headquartered in South Jordan, Utah, makes video interviewing technology for enterprises.

Government agencies are already using diverse technologies for finding and interviewing job candidates. HireVue's technology is used by some federal agencies to fill cybersecurity job openings. The company provides an on-demand interviewing platform that includes prerecorded questions so candidates can respond when it's convenient to them. HireVue also uses game-based technology to help assess learning agility, problem-solving ability and fundamental coding skills, among other attributes, Parker said.

For a job candidate's application to be successful, it will likely have to talk about the skills and attributes sought in the job description, Parker said. "It's less about, I got a 3.8 [GPA] at my college for a degree and more about the contributions I've made and the skills I've learned along the way," he said.

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