As organizations transition more aggressively to a skills-based hiring model, federal contractors are having a hard time keeping up, due to education requirements from the federal government.
Melissa Ebeling, vice president, talent acquisition at Booz Allen Hamilton, wishes her company could enjoy the benefits of skills-based hiring when it wins federal contracts.
Ebeling said Booz Allen uses skills-based hiring for all of its IT roles, but when it comes to federal contracts, there’s a caveat.
“We have additional constraints due to federal government labor category requirements, such as four-year degrees or security clearance, that narrows the talent pool,” Ebeling said. “It makes it really hard for us to do skills-based hiring because we do have those requirements.”
Headquartered in McLean, Va., Booz Allen Hamilton is a management consulting services company that offers business, government and military clients expertise in areas such as analytics, digital projects, engineering and cybersecurity.
The federal government is aware of the move to skills-based hiring, as well as its own skills shortfall. To address the issue, a 2020 executive order from then-President Donald Trump called for skills- and competency-based hiring for federal jobs.
Executive Order 13932 states: “Employers adopting skills- and competency-based hiring recognize that an overreliance on college degrees excludes capable candidates and undermines labor-market efficiencies. Degree-based hiring is especially likely to exclude qualified candidates for jobs related to emerging technologies and those with weak connections between educational attainment and the skills or competencies required to perform them.”
However, the order does not cover federal contractors who employ people to work on government projects.
“We need workers that have four-year degrees, but there are fewer people getting degrees, and that limits our talent pool,” Ebeling said. “Additionally, many universities are unable to keep up with training for rapidly emerging technologies, and that limits our pool even further.”
Even with these limitations, Ebeling said her company does its fair share of skills-based hiring to fill positions that require skills in machine learning, cybersecurity, cloud engineering, data science, data engineering and software development.
While Booz Allen can’t use its skills-based employees to work on federal IT contracts, it can use nondegreed talent for IT projects at commercial clients.
“Skills-based hiring helps us fill critically needed technical roles, alongside our efforts to upskill existing talent,” Ebeling said.
Creating Skills Pathways for Nondegreed Workers
In a 2021 survey of 587 HR executives, 76 percent said they support the elimination or relaxing of four-year degree requirements, according to CompTIA, a nonprofit trade association that issues professional certifications for the IT industry. In 2022, that number grew to 85 percent.
“We are seeing a measurable shift in companies looking for what an employee can do now, and how they can perform versus what they’ve learned and what they know,” said Nancy Hammervik, chief solutions officer at CompTIA.
Meanwhile, multiple state governments are lowering the barrier to entry for job candidates with IT skills, including those in Alaska, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Utah and Virginia.
And many large companies, including Apple, IBM, Google and Bank of America, ditched their four-year degree requirements for certain entry-level positions even before the pandemic struck.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that computer and IT-related occupations will grow by 15 percent, or 682,800 new jobs, by 2031. Organizations are establishing their own programs to lure young nondegreed high school graduates into skills development to help address the most pressing IT skills shortages.
For example, Accenture, a global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company, launched an apprenticeship program in 2016 to close the skills gap in its North American locations.
By using a learn-and-earn model, the apprenticeship program provides individuals a direct path to a full-time job with Accenture after about 12 months. It trains participants in areas such as application development, cybersecurity, data engineering and cloud computing.
Elsewhere, skills-based hiring is impacting several areas at Navy Federal Credit Union.
Britton Bloch, vice president, talent acquisition strategy and recruiting at Navy Federal, said the company doesn’t require four-year degrees for over 80 percent of its jobs.
To shore up its skills-based approach, Navy Federal utilizes a flexible workforce, which provides a talent pool of skilled professionals ready to work on demand from anywhere.
“We can quickly scale work streams and bring in the exact skills required—the right talent at the right time and cost. Flexible workers have experience in various sectors, so they bring a wide range of skills and experiences,” Bloch said.
Navy Federal also partners with Year Up, a nonprofit organization that trains young adults who haven’t completed a four-year degree. Through this partnership, Navy Federal attracts a diverse candidate pool with varied perspectives, skills and experiences.
Bloch said that skills-based hiring creates fair and equitable opportunities and allows for faster entry of candidates into the market. Furthermore, she noted that skills-based hires are digital natives with critical skills in cloud engineering, mobile development, tech risk, data engineering and architecture, and software automation.
“At Navy Federal, skills-based hiring has been invaluable for a few business units, [such as] information services, savings and membership, information security, consumer lending, mortgage, physical security, branch operations, and talent acquisition,” Bloch said.
For HR professionals who are looking at building a successful skills-based strategy, Navy Federal’s experience shows how this approach can broaden a company’s culture and its diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, as well as improve employee performance and IT skills capabilities.
“Elevating skills-based hiring with a transformative strategy will ultimately close skills gaps, open candidate aperture, activate untapped channels, and promote workforce diversity by creating fair, equitable opportunities across talent communities, specifically in underrepresented communities that may not have access to traditional educational opportunities,” Bloch said.
Nicole Lewis is a freelance journalist based in Miami.