Transitioning into a new year, the trade press has and will abound with articles listing various trends and conditions predicted for our collective and upcoming futures. Predictions are offered by so-called experts suggesting we prepare ourselves for the realities they forecast.
For instance, recently, Wards Intelligence in an article entitled “24 Predictions for ‘24,” went out on a limb to offer that electric vehicle charging infrastructure would expand. Not exactly breaking news. They failed to mention that electric utility rates will continue to climb nationwide as grid strength investment grows. This rise in electric utility rates will impact us all, whether or not we have EVs.
Entry-Level Employees and the Enrollment Cliff
There is a condition, largely unrecognized in industry except in the higher education community, which no one in our industry seems to recognize or mention in the predictions I’ve seen. That condition is the coming entry-level employee vacuum beginning in 2025, and more importantly, how public sector entities and, especially fleets, should prepare.
Higher education calls it an “Enrollment Cliff.” This “cliff,” they predict, will be manifested in lower college enrollment due to a significant drop in the birthrate that began in 2007 reinforced then by poor economic conditions, continuing through 2012.
According to Nathan Grawe, professor of economics at Carleton College and author of the book "Demographics and The Demand for Higher Education," the population of college-age students will drop by 15% between 2025 and 2029.
Quoted in the Hechinger Report, Grawe explained: “When the financial crisis hit in 2008, young people viewed that economic uncertainty was a cause for reducing fertility. The number of kids born from 2008 to 2011 fell precipitously. Fast forward 18 years to 2026 and we see that there are fewer kids reaching collegegoing age.”
Colleges are concerned as they predict a significant drop in enrollment and hence, an “Enrollment Cliff.”
In our industry, we should care about this too because paralleling the drop in college enrollment is the drop in the number of 18 – 20 year olds entering the workforce during this period. The industry continues to be plagued by the long-endured shortage of skilled blue-collar folks such as technicians and drivers; this situation will only get worse. The talent pool is going to shrink significantly as we move deeper into this decade.
How a Shifting Environment Impacts the Future
Some current trends are already resulting in declining enrollment. The high cost of college, the lifestyle impact of long-term student loan debt obligations, and the growing reality among high school students and employers questioning the value added of a college degree will result in a slow but growing trend drawing would-be students away from college. To which industries will these non-college bound and prospective employees gravitate and how they be welcomed?
Fox television and well-known blue-collar advocate Mike Rowe said there exists a “slow burn” towards the reality that college is not for everyone and that blue collar skills are truly artificial intelligence proof and produce incomes equal to and in some cases higher than those enjoyed by college graduates. Realities you and I have been living for our entire careers.
Is the “Enrollment Cliff” real? Statistics actually do not predict that high school graduation rates will decline at least until 2026. Further, the number of adult learners between the ages of 24 and 50 is growing exponentially. Also, the number of working students and students with caregiving responsibilities, essentially students living adult lives, is also growing.
These trends work in our favor if we choose to recognize and derive a marketing strategy geared towards attracting this employment segment. These potential employees will
need to work somewhere; public sector employment offers many advantages but
honestly, we do not market them well enough.
Whether the predicted enrollment cliff is caused by a dip in the birthrate, by frugal high school students, doubt in the long-standing acceptance that possession of a college degree is more beneficial, or even the recognition that a promising and lucrative career can be had by learning a blue-collar skillset are all immaterial.
It is happening and those that recognize this reality will win; those that do not, have a more dire peril ahead as the job market tightens and competition for new employees intensifies.
To Require a Degree or Not Require a Degree?
If you have read this to this point you may be saying to yourself, “I’m not in HR, responding to this reality is not my job.” I disagree. You are on the front lines, you are the ones managing in spite of staffing shortages, providing service in an increasingly challenging and difficult operating environment.
Who better and more experienced than you to state to your bosses and to HR that a college degree should not be required, that hiring blue-collar interns can pay dividends, that partnering with a local college or high school technical program can yield positive employment results, that marketing emphasis placed on the benefits of public service will draw service-minded job seekers characteristic of this generation, and that a more diverse workforce can be achieved by modifying job entry standards? Who better than you?
Where is the evidence that all this is true?
First, private sector employers of note have already recognized that colleges are not always the best sources for many positions. Employers don't value college degrees as highly as originally thought and this disdain is behind a restored appreciation for blue-collar job-seekers that bring skill and experience over education” said Ken Rusk, author of “Blue Collar Cash."
The workplace shift away from requiring college degrees has taken hold at several major companies, including Walmart, IBM, Accenture, Bank of America, and Google, as the costs associated with higher education continue to skyrocket.
Several government organizations have already made the shift. The Pennsylvania
governor’s office was more than willing to make the shift by issuing an executive
order in January 2023, opting to “…recognize professional experience, skills,
competency, and practical experience and not just educational accomplishments…” when recruiting for state government jobs.
Other states that have followed suit include Maryland, Utah, Colorado, North Carolina, New Jersey, and Alaska. Thus far, 16 states have removed the degree requirement for many positions.
According to the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), “There is no hard evidence or rigorous research suggesting the employees with a college degree perform better on the job than employees without a college education.”
I suspect you too have made that same observation.
You know the success quotients required for the positions under your responsibility better than any HR professional. The public sector is missing out on hiring and promoting a large pool of high-quality employees by unnecessarily and arbitrarily requiring a college degree for far too many positions.
As a result, local government is enforcing an artificial “paper ceiling,” which limits a vast number of potential candidates and even its own employees who want to advance but do not meet the arbitrary degree requirement to qualify.
Here is what the ICMA says are the strongest reasons for eliminating college degrees as a minimum qualification.
- You are severely limiting your candidate pool. One-half of the current workforce does not have a college degree, which means that local government degree requirements severely limit the potential candidate pool for its job openings. This condition will get worse. In a study conducted by Pew Research Center, 75% of participants felt that college is too expensive for most Americans to afford.” Hardly breaking news in my view; we have created a society of debtors, many of whom had no idea what they were agreeing to and some have little chance of repaying their large student loan obligations.
- You are following an erroneous assumption. There is absolutely no data that supports the assumption that college degrees yield better or more productive employees as noted above.
- You are killing any honest effort at diversity and inclusion in your organization. Requiring college degrees disproportionally affects Black and Hispanic Americans, as well as veterans. Your organization cannot say it has an effective diversity, equity and inclusion effort while simultaneously requiring college degrees for most jobs.
- You are losing your existing talent pool. Research conducted by McKinsey found two significant data points: 70% of workers without college degrees have applied for advanced opportunities; 80% of them have had to move to another employer to get a promotion. Local governments must significantly improve training and retention of its own talent pool. I’ve written two articles for Government Fleet, on this topic, one in 2003, and the other in 2020. In both I posited that we in government have, more than a shortage of skilled employees problem, we have an employee retention problem.
- The requirement of a college degree is ludicrous. Your college requirement would prevent you from hiring Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Richard Branson.
- If you don’t change, you are losing the race for talent. As noted on the graph above, the corporate world is changing its hiring requirements. 47% of Apple employees don’t have a college degree; many other corporations are following suit. The public sector cannot afford to ignore this trend.
Reevaluating Education Experience While Creating Workplace Flexibility
Here is an example of how one county has revised the education and experience section of the employment criteria for a technician's position:
For a technician in San Mateo County, their education requirement section simply states: “Any combination of education and experience that would likely provide the required knowledge, skills, and abilities is qualifying.”
MissionSquare Research surveyed 249 state and local government human resources managers and found 51% reported they often have to re-open recruitments because they weren’t getting a sufficient amount of qualified candidates. Additionally, 29% said they were dropping degree requirements for some positions.
Boulder County, Co., adopted skills-based hiring and between 2019 and 2021, they saw a 10% increase in applicants and employees of color.
“It really increases the diversity,” said Melissa Barker, VP of practice development at Duffy Group Inc. According to Barker, the change to skills-based hiring requirements brought in new kinds of people to the government workforce. Governing magazine October 2023
If you were not already aware, you are in a very competitive hiring marketplace. There are approximately 11 million open positions in the U.S. Since Covid and according to the Pew Research Center, almost 29 million baby boomers retired in 2020. Between now and 2030, almost the entire remaining baby boomer working population of 75 Million, will leave the workforce.
Other steps, beyond the elimination of the college degree requirement, will be needed if your organization expects to compete for talent effectively.
These include workplace flexibility to enhance work-life balance; offering a robust training component such as providing an in-house Commercial Driver’s License training program to address and close the inevitable skills gaps; providing more frequent performance and career feedback than you currently practice to answer the question, “How will you help me succeed?” and the adoption of a mentorship program for new employees to further invest in their success…and yours.
This generation, Generation Alpha, will require new management skills, processes and priority.
If your organization is still working a five-day, 40-hour work week, simply changing to a 4-day, 10-hour/day schedule will cost you nothing but may be the best employee retention tool you adopt.
Employees who get used to every weekend being a three-day routine, seldom leave to return to a five-day job, even if the salary is higher. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will walk you through the transition process.
Do the math and you will see that far more employees will leave their jobs than will enter the marketplace over the upcoming 10 years. How or will your organization compete in this vacuum?
Yesterday’s methods will not be sufficient. Take the lead and partner up with your boss, HR, and whoever else needs to hear this message.
Few recognize this “cliff” for what it means to the average public sector employer. Find out if your organization is even aware and more importantly, creating a strategy to address it, and join them in the effort. Your success and that of your department may depend on it.
This article was authored and edited according to Government Fleet editorial standards and style. Opinions expressed may not reflect that of Government Fleet.