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Opinion Larry Hogan’s legacy includes a bright idea for the labor force

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) at a news conference with Gov.-elect Wes Moore (D) at the Maryland State House in Annapolis on Nov. 10. (Graeme Sloan for The Washington Post)
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Wednesday is Inauguration Day in Annapolis, where Democrat Wes Moore will be sworn in as the governor of Maryland, replacing Republican Larry Hogan, who was term-limited after serving two four-year stints. It’s a moment of transition from one party to another and a historic milestone: Moore, elected by a landslide in November, is the first Black man to hold the state’s highest executive office.

Yet in one significant sense it will also be a day of continuity. A Moore aide confirms to me that the new governor will maintain an innovative Hogan policy, announced in March, whereby Maryland dropped the college-degree requirement for half of its 38,000 state jobs. Hogan appears to have been the first governor to open so many positions to workers sometimes described as “Skilled Through Alternative Routes,” or STARs, a term coined by advocates of the concept.

Hogan struck a blow for the notion that a bachelor’s degree does not automatically represent job-relevant skills and experience and that there are other ways — community college, military service, apprenticeship — to obtain them. “It’s time to debunk the fiction that a prestigious degree is the only key to the American dream,” Hogan wrote in an Oct. 4 Wall Street Journal op-ed. Among adults at least 25 years old in 2021, 62.1 percent lacked a four-year degree, according to the Census Bureau.

The private sector had already noted the upside of hiring STAR workers. Major companies that have selectively dropped college-degree requirements include Google, IBM and Delta Air Lines, according to the Journal. So, to a modest degree, had the federal government. As of November, 41 percent of open positions nationwide called for a four-year degree, down from 46 percent in 2019, according to the Burning Glass Institute, a think tank that analyzes labor-market trends.

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In large part, employers are expanding searches for middle- or even high-skilled workers beyond holders of bachelor’s degrees because the tight labor market is forcing them to do so.

According to a February 2022 Burning Glass study, however, the trend is probably permanent, as employers realize that — especially for middle-skilled jobs — they have been too often treating the four-year degree as what Harvard Business School labor economist Joseph Fuller calls “a proxy” for soft skills, such as a capacity to learn and succeed in a structured environment. In a 2017 study, Fuller and co-author Manjari Raman, also of Harvard, analyzed more than 26 million job postings and found significant discrepancies between companies’ routine demand for a degree and the actual educational credentials of employees who were working in those positions.

In 2015, for example, 67 percent of production supervisor job postings asked for a bachelor’s degree — which only 16 percent of employed production supervisors had. Fuller and Raman estimated that 6 million mostly middle-skilled U.S. jobs were “at risk” of similar “degree inflation.”

Ideologically, deemphasizing the degree requirement works for both parties, as shown by the support for Hogan’s policy from Moore — and from Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, Josh Shapiro, who campaigned on a promise to make similar reforms and was sworn in on Tuesday.

Hogan pitched his policy as pushback against what he called in the Journal a “broken higher-education system” whose left-leaning administrations are saddling students with tuition debt while “leading the charge to tear down what makes this nation great.”

For their part, progressive Democrats emphasize the implications for equity; since Black and Latino workers are less likely than others to have college degrees, requiring them creates a “paper ceiling,” the impact of which is racially disparate, according to Byron Auguste, a former economic adviser to the Obama White House and CEO of Opportunity@Work, who collaborated with Hogan on the issue.

“College can be a terrific bridge to opportunity,” Auguste told me by email, “but should not be a drawbridge that shuts out anyone who doesn’t manage to cross it.”

It’s too early to measure the results of Hogan’s policy, though initial data shows that Maryland’s hiring of STAR workers increased at a faster rate than overall hiring during a four-month stretch of mid-2022, relative to the same period a year earlier.

Certainly, reducing education requirements is no panacea for the intertwined problems of college debt, excessive credentialism and racial inequity. As Fuller told me, a degree remains indispensable for many jobs; even where it is not, employers would still likely prefer someone with a bachelor’s over an otherwise equally skilled candidate who lacks one.

The trend toward deemphasizing the four-year degree and considering more STAR workers, Fuller said, “opens a portal to workers with direct relevant experience. It is not opening the floodgates.”

Still, Hogan led Maryland in the right direction: toward labor-market flexibility. It bears a family resemblance to bipartisan reforms that target onerous occupational licensing requirements. Higher education could use some extra incentives to hold down tuition and improve the fit between the learning it offers and the economy’s needs. Hogan deserves credit for advancing this debate as governor.