Opinion writer

Janae Melvin shops for gifts at Forever 21 in Kansas City, Kan. (Charlie Riedel/Associated Press)

CNBC reports on one of the most promising jobs developments in recent years:

IBM CEO Ginni Rometty issued a letter to President-elect Donald Trump on Tuesday detailing steps that she says could help Americans benefit from advances in technology.

“I know that you are committed to help America’s economy grow in ways that are good for all of its people,” Rometty wrote in the letter to Trump obtained by CNBC. “I am writing to offer ideas that I believe will help achieve the aspiration you articulated and that can advance a national agenda in a time of profound change.”

The IBM chief advocated for Trump to create “new collar” IT jobs, saying that today IBM does not always require its employees to have a college degree. She said relevant skill is what “matters most.”

That is economically and politically brilliant. We have long argued that the widespread practice of requiring college education for jobs that really do not require it — retail store manager, data-entry clerk, etc. — has a disproportionate effect on African Americans and other minorities who on average are less likely to be college educated. It also however is a barrier for those angry white working-class voters who may no longer have a lower-skill manufacturing job but certainly could make a decent wage if certain jobs did not have the barrier of a college education.

The initiative could be started on a voluntary basis with use of the bully pulpit, something President-elect Donald Trump is good at. He could not-so-subtly warn employers that his Justice Department will be looking at the practice to determine if in fact overuse of college-education requirements fails the disparate impact test under federal discrimination law. (Employers can have college requirements so long as that requirement is “job-related and consistent with business necessity,” as the legal test requires.)

Such an initiative should please many constituencies. Minority civil rights groups could get credit for breaking down barriers. Rust Belt white working-class voters get the prospect of new jobs, ones that won’t get moved offshore (e.g. retail store). Employers get credit for being good corporate citizens — and if they don’t, trial lawyers will appreciate the new “business” in bringing anti-discrimination suits. This certainly would be a winner with millennials whose job prospects would no longer hinge on completing a four-year degree. (And any shopper who has ever searched in vain for a department-store sales clerk might appreciate some eager new employees.)

Why do employers have such requirements? Frankly, it’s laziness. Putting on my old labor-lawyer hat, I can say that employers don’t set out to discriminate when they slap a college degree requirement on their job postings. It’s just an easier way for them to cull job applications and to eliminate case-by-case consideration by human resource recruiters. Well, frankly, that’s not a good enough excuse, either legally or ethically.

Consider the potential effects of such an initiative. People who are either not all that interested in school or not academically proficient wouldn’t feel the need to go to a four-year university, from which they might not graduate but would incur student debt. As the demand for college education decreases, so should tuition prices.

Many of these jobs do not require much, if any, strenuous labor, thereby reducing workplace injuries and extending work lives. That in turn may generate more support for pushing back the retirement age for Social Security and Medicare.

The war on frivolous job qualifications alone won’t eliminate low job participation rate, student debt, working-class angst and entitlement sustainability, but it is a start. There are some other smart ideas that could be deployed as well. Michael Strain, in the reform conservative guidebook Room to Grow, writes on another strategy for increasing access to work:

Rolling back oppressive licensing requirements would be a big help. The Institute for Justice reports that the average cosmetologist spends 372 days in training to receive an occupational license from the government, while the average emergency medical technician trains for thirty-three days. Which occupation seems like it should require more training? Government (especially at the state and local level) certainly has a role in ensuring that certain occupations are practiced only by well-trained workers, but it seems obvious that we have gone too far. As part of their effort to put Americans back to work, conservatives should support scaling back unnecessary occupational licensing at every level of government in order to advance economic liberty and create jobs.

Not only conservatives, but liberals and everyone else should be on board as well. The number of trades demanding extensive licensing requirements (e.g. barbers, body artists, interior decorators) is stunning and unnecessary.

An added benefit of these two ideas — ending overuse of college credentialing and reducing burdensome licensing requirements — is that aside from some PR and potential legal costs, it does not cost the taxpayers anything. This is about opening opportunities without paying for more college (in fact taxpayers would pay less) or creating new bureaucracies. No public policy initiatives are without adverse consequences, but as employment ideas go, these seem like no-brainers.