We the Partnership

How agencies can open doors for job seekers without a four-year degree

By Nathan Liu
July 6, 2021 | Updated on July 7, 2021

Attracting and hiring job seekers without four-year degrees would benefit our federal government and our nation. A recent report, written by the Partnership in collaboration with the James Irvine Foundation, outlines the barriers that prevent individuals without four-year degrees from attaining federal work and offers recommendations to address these barriers.

Federal agencies should offer more accessible internships to raise awareness of federal jobs and benefits.

Job seekers without four-year degrees often do not know what people in government do on a day-to-day basis. As a result, they remain largely unaware of federal job opportunities and the benefits they offer.

Federal agencies should offer more paid internships, especially in regional offices or with a remote option to encourage accessibility.

Internships can help job seekers better understand what federal work entails and provide a pathway to a government career. The Virtual Student Federal Service, run by the State Department, has taken the lead in supporting nearly 9,000 virtual, unpaid internships in more than 70 federal agencies since 2009. Offering more accessible internships will enable the federal government to increase the likelihood that job seekers will consider civil service careers in the future.

Hiring managers should collaborate with workforce development boards and community colleges to clarify the federal hiring process.

Job seekers—both with and without a four-year degree—face a confusing and lengthy hiring process. USAJOBS is notoriously difficult to navigate and resumes for federal positions need to be structured differently than they do for those in the private sector.

Federal hiring managers should work with representatives from community colleges and workforce development boards to demystify the federal hiring process for those lacking a four-year degree. Representatives from those organizations could connect job seekers with federal agencies and provide training sessions on how to apply for a federal job. These efforts would reduce the barriers to a federal career for job seekers without four-year degrees.

Hiring managers should evaluate applicants using skills-based assessments to reduce bias for applicants with higher education degrees.

When job seekers who do not have four-year degrees find and apply for federal positions, they are often at a disadvantage in the competitive hiring process—even if they possess the knowledge, skills and competencies to succeed in a new role.  

To rectify this situation, the Office of Personnel Management is laying the groundwork for agencies to develop and use skills-based assessments. In April, OPM conducted a survey of federal employees that will inform the factors on which employees are selected, evaluated and trained across the federal government.

Recent evidence suggests that skills-based hiring can help agencies tackle big challenges. To distribute COVID-19 relief funds, for example, the Small Business Administration opened many new marketing positions to applicants without a four-year degree. Victor Parker, a deputy associate administrator at the SBA, explained that the agency sought individuals based on their interpersonal and communication skills rather than a particular degree.

Other agencies should follow suit to achieve similar results for the people they serve. Candidates without four-year degrees are untapped resources that would help government fill critical talent gaps and work better. To learn more, read “Opening Doors, Building Ladders: How Federal Agencies Can Hire and Retain Californians Who Do Not Have a Four-year Degree” and our latest blog post on this research.

Nathan Liu is an intern on the Partnership’s Government Effectiveness team.


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