A skills-based approach would open doors for underrepresented candidates and increase the available talent pool for the public sector.

A skills-based approach would open doors for underrepresented candidates and increase the available talent pool for the public sector. Liliboas / Getty Images

It’s Time to Rethink Degree Requirements for Federal Contractors

Outdated mandates that job candidates have 4-year educational degrees create barriers to getting the best people on the job.

As demand for qualified technical talent continues to increase, one large and critical workforce is especially strained: the public sector. Talent is particularly scarce around high-demand roles like cybersecurity, cloud computing and software development—some of the skills the public sector needs most.

It’s a vexing problem, and public sector leaders face challenges in solving it on three fronts:

  1. Four-year degree requirements for most technical roles create outdated and unnecessary barriers in the recruitment and hiring process.
  2. With fewer people pursuing four-year degrees, there is a more limited pool of talent to dip into, and it’s one in which racial and ethnic populations are still underrepresented.
  3. An unprecedented number of open jobs is preventing critical work from getting done and impacting the nation’s competitive advantage from a technology standpoint.

To overcome these challenges, we must reconsider our approach to “qualified” talent.

The historical model for attracting public sector workers had strict higher education requirements. A 2020 executive order partially reformed this for federal employees, encouraging “skills- and competency-based” hiring. The order did not cover federal contractors, leaving a significant gap for the companies that supply thousands of jobs serving government missions and putting the federal ecosystem at a competitive disadvantage.

In contrast, the private sector has increased hiring of individuals with skills-based training and certifications in lieu of degrees. Over the past few years, the private sector has boosted the number of non-degree jobs by 40%, according to an article in Forbes. Many have also rolled out talent training programs. SAS, for instance, offers courses designed to help workers build highly in-demand skills employers are seeking such as data science, machine learning, statistical analysis and programming. 

Traditional Degree Requirements are Increasingly Problematic

In addition to creating a smaller talent pool, the four-year degree requirement inhibits the goal of diversifying the U.S. government. A 2021 FedScope study indicated people of color represented just 38% of the full-time federal workforce, and only 33% held senior-level positions. Further, many veterans—who bring diverse viewpoints, unique experiences and valuable security clearances—are disqualified from certain roles because they fail to meet the requirement.

A skills-based approach would open doors for underrepresented candidates and increase the available talent pool for the public sector. Research from Handshake found that focusing on skills instead of major or degree alone tripled the number of qualified veteran tech candidates—and resulted in a significant increase in female and Black candidates as well.

It’s time to eliminate outdated restrictions that prevent the public sector from putting the best possible person on the job—and we can start right now.

Pathways That Show Promise 

One way is for the government to embrace outcomes-based contracting, where contractors have the flexibility to apply the labor mix with the right skills to meet desired mission outcomes instead of prescribed labor categories with fixed educational requirements and effort levels. This requires a paradigm shift, but sets up both industry and government for better results.

How? Moving away from core requirements for specific personnel and services would enable the government to get the best value for its contracts. While government clients determine solutions and capability requirements to meet mission needs, contractors determine the best resources to achieve client desires. The contractor assumes the risk of the parameters set by the client, but is empowered to focus more on skills and certifications and tap new talent pools such as individuals graduating from community colleges and vocational schools, or transitioning from military service.

A second pathway is adjusting the standard contract labor categories, which outline the education and experience requirements for public sector contractor jobs. The standard categories haven’t kept up with technology’s pace of change. They are often driven by outdated models of skills needed to complete certain technical jobs. In taking a more holistic view of the core technology solutions the government needs, public entities can create a labor category structure more applicable to the realities of the technical workforce required.

Driving Change in the Near-Term

A combination of the two pathways above will drive change in the long term but adjusting the labor categories model is the ticket in the short term. There are also some areas where, as an industry, we can partner to make an impact immediately:

  • Align on key roles: Some roles will still require a four-year degree, such as engineering. Therefore, advocacy for change to the labor buying structure should focus on high demand needs like cloud computing, IT modernization, data analytics, cybersecurity and software development roles, where certification and skills training has already proven highly effective.

  • Start with the Defense Department: The Defense Department is the largest consumer of technology talent, because to compete and win on a global scale, it must integrate private sector technology and make rapid advancements. It also has an annual policy review that provides an opportunity for legislative proposals to address issues like this and make an impact in the near-term, making it an ideal test bed for skills-focused workforce pilots.

  • Test and learn: Through pilot programs that test these concepts, the Defense Department can show the impact to other agencies and drive larger-scale adoption.

The battle for talent is growing fiercer, and to win it on the federal front, a new plan of attack is needed. By focusing on outcomes, embracing more flexible degree and skills requirements for certain roles, and upgrading the contracting labor categories structure, we can hire the critical talent needed to support government missions today and into the future.

Betty Thompson is the chief people officer at Booz Allen Hamilton.