Center for American Progress

The Benefits of Skills-Based Hiring for the State and Local Government Workforce

The Benefits of Skills-Based Hiring for the State and Local Government Workforce

Skills-based practices can spur an equitable recovery in the state and local government workforce by ensuring that positions are open to all qualified applicants.

In this article
The golden dome of the Massachusetts State House is seen behind a street beneath a blue sky.
The golden dome of the Massachusetts State House is seen in the city of Boston. (Getty/Sergi Reboredo)

Introduction and summary

State and local government workers deliver services that Americans depend on every day for individual and public welfare. The state and local government sector is also a major employer, and it is a direct source of economic security for more than 19 million workers across the country. In its capacity as an employer, purchaser, and producer of public goods and services, it is a major driver of economic activity. Yet since the Great Recession, city and state governments in the United States have experienced declines in employment, falling wages that struggle to compete with employment opportunities in other sectors, and serious challenges recruiting new talent.1 During this time, some cities and states have considered a new strategy to expand and diversify their workforces: skills-based hiring.

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This report outlines the current employment challenges facing state and local governments and outlines the role that skills-based practices—including hiring and training—should play in the recovery, expansion, and growth of state and local government workforces.

The report identifies five components to successful implementation of a skills-based approach:

  1. Engage the right stakeholders.
  2. Identify occupations.
  3. Build skills-based job descriptions.
  4. Invest in training.
  5. Establish recruitment partnerships.

State and local governments that implement skills-based practices can expand and diversify their workforces and meet their own talent needs.

State and local government employment has recovered slowly from the COVID-19 pandemic

In a previous report, the Center for American Progress outlined how the state and local government workforce is crucial to delivering critical services to constituents and economic security to its workers.2 In addition, Opportunity@Work has outlined the skills of workers without college degrees, their pathways to higher-wage work, and ways that employers can implement skills-based hiring and practice change.3

State and local governments deliver services upon which their residents rely, including public education and child care, benefits administration, public health, elections, building and maintenance of roads and bridges, parks and recreational operations, and much more. Yet understaffing means that service delivery is impaired. For example, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, understaffed unemployment insurance agencies were unable to deliver timely payments to workers; reduced public transit operations resulting from a lack of staff made getting to school, work, and other responsibilities difficult; and a stark increase in deaths in several prison systems has been attributed to chronic staff shortages.4

State and local government workers


Percentage of state and local government workers who are women


Percentage of Black women who work in state and local government


Percentage of Black men who work in state and local government

State and local government accounts for 12 percent of employed people and disproportionately employs women and workers of color: 60.3 percent of state and local workers are women, compared with 44.5 percent of federal government workers and 46.5 percent of private sector workers. Throughout the 20th century, civil rights activists targeted access to public sector employment—particularly for Black workers—to provide economic opportunity, and employment in this sector has since improved wages and wealth for Black Americans. Today, 16 percent of Black women and 10 percent of Black men work in state and local government.5

Despite the critical importance of these jobs for both the workers who fill them and constituents, state and local government hiring is not as robust as it should be. While private sector employment has surpassed pre-pandemic employment levels, the public sector—state and local government in particular—has not. As of October 2022, state and local government employment is still 1.1 percent and 3.3 percent below pre-pandemic levels, respectively. (see Figure 1) In 2021, declines were particularly visible in occupations involved in direct service delivery to constituents—such as office clerks, claims adjusters, appraisers and examiners, nurses, and personal care aides—as well as occupations that keep the lights on and systems operational, such as computer scientists and web developers, accountants, security guards, and maids and housekeeping cleaners.6

Figure 1

Notably, the state and local government sector has been operating below Great Recession levels: In March 2020, the workforce had barely recovered from 2008 lows when it was affected by a new round of pandemic-induced employment declines. (see Figure 2)

Figure 2

A number of strategies can address this decline, starting with investments in job quality—including employee compensation—and ensuring that state and local agencies have the authority to post a sufficient number of new roles to stop the dangerous cycle of understaffing and overwork. Overall, the portion of state and local government expenditures going toward employee compensation has declined steadily—from 54 percent in 1998 to 48 percent in 2020. (see Figure 3) This decline occurred despite a 190 percent increase in inflation-adjusted state and local government spending between 1977 and 2019.7

Figure 3

Some states, intending to respond to recruitment and retention crises, have raised wages for workers. Kentucky increased wages by 8 percent across the board for fiscal year (FY) 2023; New Mexico and AFSCME Council 18 negotiated a minimum 7 percent increase in 2022; and Virginia state employees will receive a 10 percent raise in 2022 and 2023.8 Other states and cities should follow their example. But even with meaningful improvements in job quality, governments still have to address a variety of hiring challenges, including pandemic-related health and safety concerns, burnout, lack of workplace flexibility, threats of violence at work, and an aging workforce nearing retirement.9 State and local governments are also expecting the introduction of new occupations to address changing workplace habits; technological advances; and challenges such as climate change, behavioral health, public health, and more.

Employees with a bachelor's degree


Private sector workers


Federal government workers


State and local government workers

Notably, other difficulties related to job postings, recruitment, and training are often perceived as bureaucratic or inflexible. State and local human resources (HR) departments are often themselves understaffed, and the most common form of recruitment—governments’ own websites—is a passive one.10

All of these challenges contribute to exceptionally high vacancy rates that exceed those of the private sector. In September 2022, state and local government hired only 0.31 people for every opening, less than almost every other industry. (see Figure 4)

Figure 4

State and local government may also be more likely to require higher education than the private sector, which can act as a formal barrier to entry. In 2021, 23.5 percent of Americans ages 25 or older held a bachelor’s degree.11 On average, about 36 percent of private sector workers have a bachelor’s degree, compared with 49 percent of federal government employees and 57 percent of state and local government employees. (see Figure 5) The private sector differential may be partially explained by occupational mix, as this sector is more likely to employ high-volume occupations that do not require a degree, such as retail salespersons and fast-food workers.12 However, the 8 percentage-point difference between federal and state and local employees suggests that there is room to expand access to some state and local jobs to individuals without formal postsecondary credentials.

Figure 5

Not only do current workers in state and local government hold bachelor’s degrees at higher rates overall, but job postings for a given occupation in the public sector may be more likely to have a bachelor’s degree requirement than the same job in other sectors. For example, of the computer user support specialist jobs that were posted across the United States over a six-month period in 2022, 45 percent of those in the public administration sector required a bachelor’s degree. Only three other industries required a bachelor’s degree for this role at higher rates.

Figure 6

It is imperative that state and local governments operate fully and with adequate staffing. To enable them to do so, CAP and Opportunity@Work recommend the use of skills-based practices, an approach that—as part of a broader package of investments in the state and local government workforce—will expand and diversify the hiring pool and meet the sector’s skill needs.

Skills-based hiring opens state and local government work to more workers

Broadly, skills-based hiring defines a job by the skills required to perform it, with employers then considering all applicants by assessing whether their skills align with those that are needed. Since the Great Recession, many employers—including state and local governments—have been using academic degrees as a proxy for skills.13 Skills-based practices can reverse that trend, open up new opportunities for workers who have the right skill set, and create pathways to advancement for incumbent workers.

Adding a degree requirement has made millions of workers who are skilled through alternative routes ineligible for good jobs.

More than 70 million Americans are skilled through alternative routes (STARs); they have either a high school diploma, some college, an associate’s degree, or other credential, but they do not hold a bachelor’s degree, which is the typical educational screen employers put on job postings. (see Figure 7) Almost 70 percent of new jobs from 2012 to 2019 were in occupations that typically require a four-year college degree or higher for entry-level work.14 Adding a degree requirement has made millions of workers who are skilled through alternative routes—the majority of the labor market—ineligible for good jobs.

Figure 7

STARs are especially important as governments think about improving economic mobility and reversing inequality across their regions. A decreasing number of good jobs are available to STARs, and STARs have been experiencing decreasing economic mobility over the past several decades.

In addition, requiring degrees excludes qualified candidates from underrepresented backgrounds. More than 6 in 10 Black and 5 in 10 Hispanic workers hold a high school diploma but do not hold a bachelor’s degree. (see Figure 8) A plurality of historically excluded workers—Black workers, Hispanic workers, rural workers, and veterans—are STARs, and millions more do not hold a high school diploma. By reconsidering degree requirements, public sector jobs can again be the engines of mobility they once were and reflect the demographics of the constituents they serve.

Figure 8

STARs have built skills in their current jobs that are transferable to higher-paying jobs. This suggests that by screening out workers without a bachelor’s degree, employers are missing out on skilled workers.15 Many skills are transferable from one job to another.

For example, consider a retail salesperson who is building skills in customer service, communication, and detail orientation.16 These are baseline skills required for a number of jobs in state and local government. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, these skills are also the basis of jobs such as administrative services managers.17 Using a skills-based approach, governments can find workers with a baseline level of transferable, applicable skills and train or upskill them for the remainder of the skills necessary—an approach that is already needed for workers with bachelor’s degrees.

Right now, state and local governments are screening out millions of qualified STARs by including formal bachelor’s degree requirements on job listings, by preferring candidates with bachelor’s degrees, or by exhibiting unintentional biases that underestimate the skills of STARs. Skills-based hiring could result in more qualified candidates, more equitable hiring, higher performance, and better retention.18

Skills-based practices make governments more competitive employers

Skills-based hiring is gaining momentum across government sectors, including the federal government. It addresses looming retirements in critical occupations, shows promise to be better for workers than current hiring practices, and allows governments to be model employers for their regions.

Gaining momentum

Recent Burning Glass Institute research found that from 2017 to 2019, employers removed degree requirements from 46 percent of middle-skill jobs and 31 percent of high-skill jobs.19 As of April 2022, more than 100 private sector employers had made public commitments to remove degree requirements from job listings.20 Companies have also made forays into on-the-job training and apprenticeship in order to hire workers who have baseline skills but need technology training. For example, Accenture is seeking to fill 20 percent of its entry-level roles through apprenticeships, and IBM is on track to have 25 apprenticeship programs and train 1,000 apprentices by the end of 2022.21

The federal government is also seeking to address workforce challenges through skills-based hiring. Two executive orders—one from the Trump administration and one from the Biden administration—sought to build a more inclusive hiring process inside the federal government.22 The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) issued guidance during the Trump administration to “expand the use of valid, competency-based assessments and narrow the use of educational qualifications in the Federal hiring process.”23 OPM issued an extension of this order in December 2021, indicating that the Biden administration will continue efforts to implement a skills-based approach at the federal level.24

Addressing looming retirements

Critical occupations in state and local government are at high risk of shortages due to a workforce disproportionately nearing retirement: 27.8 percent of the state and local government workforce is older than age 55; as a result, certain occupations are at risk of losing their most experienced workers and do not have a replacement pipeline. (see Figure 9) While these workers have a mix of educational backgrounds, older workers in these occupations are less likely to have a bachelor’s degree than younger workers, suggesting that the credential barrier to entry has increased over time. Implementing a mentorship or apprenticeship approach to train new hires would also take advantage of more experienced workers’ skills as mentors.

Figure 9

Showing promise to be better for workers

Previous research has found that skills are the currency of the labor market. Workers with bachelor’s degrees are able to transition into higher-paying occupations using skills they have built on the job.25 Allowing STARs to do the same enables them to use the skills they have built in their current job for higher-wage work. In the public sector, skills-based hiring gives workers access to solid employment that provides workplace protections, wages that often exceed those of the private sector in lower-level roles, benefits, and higher rates of unionization. All of these are critical for workers experiencing intersecting racial and gender income and wealth gaps.26

Allowing governments to be model employers

As state and local elected officials, as well as labor and workforce development officials, advance policies around workforce equity and training in the private sector, they should first ensure that their own workplaces reflect these agendas. Skills-based hiring and practice changes can help these officials “walk the talk” as they ask employers to do the same.

Pairing skills-based hiring with training

Employer-paid training has declined significantly in the United States, experiencing as much as a 28 percent decrease from 2001 to 2009.27 Adopting a skills-based approach can be successfully utilized with on-the-job training, including upskilling or registered apprenticeships for employees. Upskilling is the process of teaching an employee new skills at any point in their tenure, whereas a registered apprenticeship is a more formal model that combines on-the-job training, classroom instruction, and wage progression. Registered apprenticeships are typically implemented at the time of hire.

Both approaches assume that some degree of training is necessary once an employee is hired in order for them to be successful in their new role—and that the employer and tenured on-the-job mentors are better suited to teach those role-specific skills than an external educational provider. Training has been shown to result in improved employee retention, satisfaction, and productivity, as well as to encourage better fits for hard-to-fill roles.28

Early public sector skills-based practices show promise

At its best, a comprehensive employee recruitment and retention strategy that advances skills-based hiring allows workers with the best skills fit to get the job. This helps maintain and improve employees’ performance. Such a strategy also provides equal pay for equal work, regardless of educational background. The rationale for skills-based hiring is well established, but implementation—particularly in a highly regulated environment such as public sector hiring—can be an enormous challenge.

The following case studies reflect conversations with state and local officials, staff, and community and union partners. Each early adopter has faced various challenges and successes during implementation; the case studies highlight where employers have been effective in an effort to instruct to other cities and states that choose to pursue this hiring practice.

The Massachusetts Department of Labor Standards’ apprenticeship pilot

The Massachusetts Department of Labor Standards (DLS) is tasked with promoting and protecting workers’ safety, health, wages, and working conditions. A critical role in this work is that of an industrial safety and health inspector (ISHI), who is tasked with preventing workplace fatalities, injuries, and accidents by conducting accident investigations and proactive inspections, among other responsibilities. According to DLS Director Michael Flanagan, this role was chronically hard to fill: It requires a specialized skill set for which there is only one relevant undergraduate degree program in New England, and even with that education, most new hires required months of on-the-job training to become proficient. In 2021, the current inspectors were nearing retirement, leading to concerns about workforce sustainability. The DLS also wanted to build a more diverse workforce that represented the workers it protected.29

In response, Flanagan proposed implementing two solutions in tandem: reconsidering entry-level requirements into the occupation and developing an apprenticeship model to upskill new hires. He partnered with the Massachusetts Organization of State Engineers and Scientists—the union representing ISHIs—and the Division of Apprentice Standards (DAS) to implement and develop these processes. The new entry-level role would be an apprentice industrial safety and health inspector. Unlike the previous entry-level role, which required a bachelor’s degree or equivalent experience, the new role would require a high school diploma as well as interest in the field. The new apprenticeship program, meanwhile, would be registered with the DAS, with apprentices receiving on-the-job training and mentorship from experienced inspectors, as well as attending classroom training paid for by the DLS. Upon completing the program, apprentices would be qualified as certified safety and health officials by Keene State College, graduate into full-time ISHI roles, and receive a commensurate wage increase. The job posting aggressively signaled the shift to applicants: “No experience? No problem. The apprenticeship is designed to provide you the education and experience you need to succeed.”30

The program successfully overcame several roadblocks as it was implemented. For example, DLS had to hold several roles open—and unfilled—for the apprentices to progress into upon completion of the program. Furthermore, DLS had to create a new apprentice role. It was able to do so by leveraging a functional title a step below the typical ISHI role that had previously gone unused. Both lessons will be valuable to other departments in Massachusetts and other states considering a similar initiative.

The program yielded strong results. For one, the number of applicants increased significantly. While a typical ISHI posting receives six to 10 applicants, the apprentice posting received 280 applications. Flanagan said that the Office of Diversity screened the applicant pool at every level of the process to ensure unconscious bias did not affect evaluations. Ultimately, three candidates were hired—all with different educational backgrounds and levels. Today, the candidates remain employed with DLS and are on track to complete their apprenticeship programs.

One of the new apprentices, Danielson DeAndrade, will conclude his apprenticeship and be eligible for full-time employment in November. Through the apprenticeship program, DeAndrade transitioned from a job as a campus police officer. “I changed my career to something I really enjoy, not knowing that I would end up there,” said DeAndrade. “That’s only because I was an apprentice, because I wouldn’t have had those safety qualifications they were looking for. I only got those because of the apprenticeship program … They weren’t looking for someone who had experience; they wanted to grow somebody.”31

Maryland reconsidered degree requirements for a target set of occupations

In 2021, the state of Maryland faced a two-sided problem:32 It struggled to fill open positions for its roughly 38,000-person workforce even as many residents without a bachelor’s degree struggled to find good jobs. Upon looking at state worker data, the Executive Office of the Governor realized that Maryland was excluding roughly half its workforce by emphasizing a college degree in its job postings.

Over a three-month period, the state’s HR team reviewed the 2,500 master job specifications to take the first step of a skills-based approach: reconsidering educational requirements. According to a previously published Opportunity@Work case study, “For jobs that already had experience substitutions, they moved that language up from the notes section to the first bullet.” This was a small but important signal, making it clear that experience gained through alternative routes was equivalent to a bachelor’s degree program. The research identified many of these jobs—clustered in occupations such as information technology (IT), corrections, administration, and customer-facing jobs—as promising pathways for STARs.

Some jobs did not have experience substitutions, and others—such as those that require medical licensures—were ineligible for an “or equivalent” line. But agency directors signed off on adding additional experience substitutions to jobs as appropriate.

Over a 90-day period aligned with the legislative session, state policymakers were able to “identify or enhance a substitution requirement for half of the State’s jobs.” Maryland saw a 34 percent increase in STAR applications over the first six months after substitution requirements were implemented, and 50 percent of state jobs no longer require a degree.

Colorado’s comprehensive top-to-bottom approach

In April 2022, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) signed an executive order requiring state agencies to engage in “a practice known as skills-based hiring” by considering skills and experiences over degrees.33 This approach has been critical to addressing the agencies’ unsustainable employee workload. As the executive director of Colorado WINS, Colorado’s public sector union, stated in a press release, “This new policy is an important step toward ensuring our state is well staffed and able to provide critical public services and resources to families in every corner of Colorado.”34

Efforts toward a skills-based agenda began years prior, when a handful of managers at a state agency that was struggling with high turnover attended a skills-based hiring training held by the Markle Foundation’s Skillful initiative—now part of the Rework America Alliance, which has continued to engage with the state of Colorado.35 Over time, directors and staff at other agencies also attended the training and adopted a skills-based approach, leading to statewide executive action years down the road in 2022. Gov. Polis’ executive order built the permission structure for the Department of Personnel Administration (DPA)—the lead implementation agency—to work alongside the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment’s (CDLE) Future of Work and Human Resources departments to improve hiring across the state government and its 98,000 employees.36

The DPA works to ensure that all job descriptions are skills-based, as well as accessible to qualified workers regardless of degree attainment. Ninety percent of positions now have a defined equivalency for educational attainment.

Importantly, the state engages in cultural work to complement more tactical efforts. A critical mindset shift was required across the hiring agencies—from hiring the perfect fit to growing workers to fill the positions over time.

One approach to growing workers has been building a robust public sector apprenticeship program alongside CDLE. This program uses federal apprenticeship funding and centralized apprenticeship implementation to serve every state agency.

In the early stages, CDLE and DPA identified two barriers that needed to be addressed before the program could be scaled. First, they needed a process to manage wage increases as required by registered apprenticeship regulation. In order to address this, DPA set up a plan in advance for competency-based wage increases so that when the apprentice demonstrates the required skill set, they receive an increase in compensation.

Second, CDLE and DPA needed to manage department head counts: Each department has a strict number of allotted positions, and CDLE and DPA were worried about apprentices counting against them as replacements for other full-time employees. DPA arranged to “sponsor” apprentices, who do not count against head count, by employing them directly.

Skills-based hiring is also being implemented at the local level. The Boulder Chamber of Commerce has been leading skills-based hiring trainings across the city and county to encourage better hiring practices across the region.

Colorado demonstrates the positive feedback loop that can build when both states and localities take a new approach.


State and local governments must fully staff agencies and offices in order to deliver quality services to constituents. To do so, governments must implement a strategic approach that will attract more applicants. A crucial portion of any strategy must include improving the quality of taxpayer-funded jobs and ensuring that new roles are held to quality standards. To expand and diversify the pool of applicants qualified for these jobs, state and local governments should also implement a skills-based approach for a targeted set of roles.

This report recommends the following five principles to make a skills-based hiring policy successful in state and local governments:

  1. Involve key stakeholders.
  2. Identify target job roles.
  3. Reconsider degree requirements to build a skills-based job description.
  4. Build recruitment partnerships.
  5. Invest in worker training.

Involve key stakeholders

A variety of sponsors and champions can originate a skills-based hiring policy agenda, as many parties have a stake in ensuring a well-staffed state and local government workforce. Regardless of who brings the concept to the table, the following stakeholders, at minimum, must be engaged early on to jointly determine a set of goals, target occupations, processes, and challenges:

  • Executive-level champions in the office of the chief elected official. This could be either the governor or the mayor, who would help to ensure leadership and agency-level buy-in.
  • Public sector union leadership. This is required to ensure that the concerns and input of union members and current state and local employees are addressed and included in hiring agendas, as well as that existing staff receive information about any changes through a trusted messenger. Some changes necessary to implement a skills-based agenda may need to be addressed through collective bargaining. Thirty-three percent of state government employees and 44 percent of local government employees are represented by a union, compared with 7 percent of private sector employees.37
  • Agency or department-level leaders. It is important to engage those who are facing significant hiring challenges and would be willing to pilot a skills-based hiring approach.
  • Human resources. The relevant umbrella department would be charged with executing any cross-agency initiative at scale.
  • Other partners that may be necessary depending on the environment. These include content experts from state and local labor, apprenticeships, and workforce development and education agencies; employee representatives in nonunion settings; major community partners who could support recruitment efforts; and legislators.

As an early step, this stakeholder group must identify who has the power to alter minimum requirements, whether such changes can be completed at the HR level, whether an executive order is needed, or if legislative action must be taken. The group must also ensure this entity—whether at the HR, legislative, or executive level—is deeply involved in the work.

Identify target job roles

States and local governments face many hiring challenges, but some jobs are harder to hire for than others. Partners should define the slate of challenges they face in hiring and choose jobs for skills-based hiring that ameliorate those challenges.

Departments and agencies know their hiring challenges best. They may have specific positions that are especially hard to hire for or roles where the majority of employees are older than the age of 50 and therefore close to retirement. They may have roles where it is hard to compete with the private sector on the basis of salary, such as IT jobs, or roles where employees can only learn skills on the job, such as the inspector role from the Massachusetts case study. All of these types of jobs are good candidates for redesign.

Some additional questions to consider:

  • Is this a new-to-labor-market job for which there is an opportunity to shape the requirements?
  • From where does the requirement for a credential come? Is it legislative or a best practice?
  • Are these roles available and standardized across departments?
  • Do these roles have extremely low levels of applicants?
  • Are these roles a good fit for apprenticeship or on-the-job training?
  • Are many of the workers currently in these roles STARs? Alternatively, are STARs overrepresented in entry-level jobs, but ineligible for manager roles based on degree requirements?
  • Did this job always require a degree? If not, why does it require one now?

Opportunity@Work’s research has found 7.5 million jobs that used to be filled by STARs that are no longer accessible paths for workers without degrees.38 Nearly half of these losses are in 30 occupations for which STARs are likely to have developed skills that make them a good match. These occupations have meaningful percentages of STARs already in them, suggesting they are good candidates for skills-based hiring criteria. This list—including occupations such as police officer, administrative assistant, and computer information and systems manager—provides a “start here” guide for municipalities unsure of where to begin.

Clearly identifying and agreeing upon a set of jobs to focus on—rather than trying to tackle every existing job across a government—provides state and local governments with a framework for success.

Reconsider degree requirements to build a skills-based job description

Once the specific jobs are defined, municipalities should begin reworking job descriptions based on the process upon which key stakeholders agree, including changing human resources guidance, writing an executive order, or taking legislative action.39

To ensure all applicants with the necessary skills are eligible to apply, state and local governments should begin by reassessing degree requirements for the agreed upon jobs. Assessments could include removing the degree requirement altogether, defining an appropriate or equivalent skill or experience, or even identifying jobs as “degree preferred.” In many cases, interviewees suggested that centering experience was as easy as flipping the “bachelor’s degree or equivalent experience in [occupation]” to “experience in [occupation] or bachelor’s degree.”40

But changing the qualification language is just the first step. Job descriptions will also need to be rewritten to be skills-based to further emphasize the skills workers need to successfully complete the job. There are a number of tools available to implement this across departments. In addition, it is imperative that reassessing degree requirements does not degrade job quality. Rather, it should open quality opportunities to more workers.41

Build recruitment partnerships

State and local governments, as major employers in every state and city, often rely on passive forms of recruitment—such as posting open jobs on their own government human resources and career websites—to attract job seekers. Without a more proactive recruitment strategy, therefore, it will be difficult to ensure that redesigned roles reach a broad and diverse audience.

The first place to start can be internal: State and local agencies serve millions of prospective job seekers each day through the public workforce development system, a federally funded network of career centers that is typically overseen by a state’s department of labor. For example, the 2021 MassHire Statewide Job Fair—put together by MassHire, Massachusetts’ public workforce system—included representatives from a number of state agencies, including the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, and the Massachusetts Department of Revenue.42 State and local governments can also partner with their own departments of education, health and human services, and housing to reach students and graduates, customers of public benefit or assistance systems, and public housing residents. In addition, governments can partner with community-based organizations both to recruit workers and to apply for federal or state funding to develop apprenticeship and pipeline programs. Finally, governments can partner with current employees and their unions to expand their reach, and they can look to their current workforce for potential trainees for higher-level positions.

Invest in worker training

Some roles in state and local government require substantial on-the-job training—regardless of the postsecondary credentials or past experience of the applicant. Examples of these roles may include specialized inspectors or auditors; case managers who require knowledge of state and local benefit programs and policies; administrative or IT jobs that require knowledge of software or programs that exist only in the public sector; and others. In these cases, requiring this type of specialized experience will significantly limit the number of potential applicants and make hiring extremely difficult.

Implementing on-the-job training, registered apprenticeships, or upskilling as part of a skills-based approach expands the applicant pool, ensures that candidates are hired for skills and aptitude, and sets them—and employers—up for success through a structured training program that takes place after applicants have been hired. This can include a combination of on-the-job training and mentorship from an individual with more experience in the role. Examples include the long-standing Baltimore City Joint Apprenticeship Program that provides apprenticeships for eight city positions, including building inspectors and automotive mechanics; the Massachusetts Department of Labor Standards’ industrial health and safety inspector highlighted previously in this report; and apprenticeships in several Kentucky state agencies across IT, direct service, and automotive occupations.43 Earlier in 2022, Jobs for the Future launched a public sector digital jobs initiative to diversify and expand the public sector IT workforce by developing pathways for individuals to enter the sector without a four-year degree.44 Colorado—also profiled in this report—secured federal grant funding to expand apprenticeships in state government.45 States and cities should also ensure that upskilling opportunities are available to existing employees and create pathways for workers to transition into and advance between different roles.


Skills-based practices can advance inclusivity in and access to state and local government employment. A true skills-based hiring approach reflects not just a technical change to a job description, but a shift in culture and mindset among employers, who must look beyond credentials to assess fit for a position. Nowhere is this mindset more important than a sector that is funded by taxpayer dollars and that provides crucial services to constituents.


The authors would like to thank Camila Garcia, Rose Khattar, Nick Buffie, Justin Heck, and Ashley Edwards for their data analysis in support of this product, as well as Anona Neal for her thorough fact-checking. The authors are also grateful for the input of Marcella Bombardieri, Karla Walter, Papia Debroy, Bridgette Gray, Amy Mortimer, Beth Cobert, and Jacob Vigil.


  1. Rose Khattar, Marina Zhavoronkova, and Anona Neal, “Investments in the State and Local Government Workforce Will Deliver Crucial Services and Create Economic Security,” Center for American Progress, March 25, 2022, available at
  2. Ibid.
  3. Peter Q. Blair, Papia Debroy, and Justin Heck, “Skills, Degrees and Labor Market Inequality” (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2021), available at; Opportunity@Work, “Navigating with the STARs” (Washington, November 2020)), available at; Opportunity@Work, “Tear the Paper Ceiling Hiring Playbook,” available at (last accessed October 2022).
  4. Tyler Boesch, Ryan Nunn, and Katherine Lim, “What did and didn’t work in unemployment insurance during the pandemic” (Minneapolis: Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, 2021), available at; Justin George, “Omicron deepens bus driver shortage, frustrating passengers as transit agencies pare back service,” The Washington Post, January 15, 2022, available at; Bobbi-Jeanne Misick, “Expert says inadequate staffing is driving deaths in prisons across the Gulf South,” New Orleans Public Radio, August 1, 2022, available at
  5. Khattar, Zhavoronkova, and Neal, “Investments in the State and Local Government Workforce Will Deliver Crucial Services and Create Economic Security”; Michael Madowitz, Christian E. Weller, and Anne Price, “Public Work Provides Economic Security for Black Families and Communities” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2020), available at
  6. Ibid.
  7. Urban Institute, “State and Local Backgrounders,” available at (last accessed October 2022).
  8. Office of the Governor, “Gov. Beshear: State Budget Builds on Economic Momentum, Invests in Improving Key Infrastructure,” Press release, April 11, 2022, available at; Virginia’s Legislative Information System, “2022 Special Session I Budget Bill,” available at (last accessed October 2022); AFSCME Council 18, New Mexico and Colorado, “Breaking News – State Employee Contract Signed!”, Press release, August 8, 2022, available at
  9. Khattar, Zhavoronkova, and Neal, “Investments in the State and Local Government Workforce Will Deliver Crucial Services and Create Economic Security.”
  10. Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene, “The Government Job Application Drop-off is ‘Snowballing’,” Route Fifty, November 13, 2021, available at; Gerald Young, “Survey Findings: State and Local Government Workforce 2021” (Washington: Mission Square Research Institute, 2021), available at
  11. U.S. Census Bureau, “Educational Attainment in the United States: 2021,” February 24, 2022, available at
  12. Audrey Watson, “Occupational Employment and Wages in State and Local Government,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, December 2021, available at
  13. Joseph Fuller, Christina Langer, and Matt Sigelman, “Skills-Based Hiring Is on the Rise,” Harvard Business Review, February 11, 2022, available at
  14. Opportunity@Work analysis of typical entry-level education categories from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment Projections,” available at (last accessed November 2022); Opportunity@Work analysis of U.S. Census Bureau, “2012 and 2019 Annual Social and Economic Supplement to the Current Population Survey,” available at (last accessed November 2022).
  15. Ibid.
  16. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Retail Sales Worker,” (last accessed November 2022).
  17. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Administrative Services and Facilities Manager,” available at (last accessed October 2022).
  18. Joseph Fuller and Manjari Raman, “Dismissed by Degrees: How degree inflation is undermining U.S. competitiveness and hurting America’s middle class” (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School, 2017), available at; Skillful, “Skill Works: Skill-Based Hiring in the Public Sector” (New York: 2018), available at
  19. Joseph Fuller and others, “The Emerging Degree Reset: How to Shift to Skills-Based Hiring Holds the Keys to Growing the U.S. Workforce at a Time of Talent Shortage” (The Burning Glass Institute, 2022), available at
  20. Steve Lohr, “A 4-Year Degree Isn’t Quite the Job Requirement It Used to Be,” The New York Times, April 8, 2022, available at
  21. Steve Lohr, “Millions Have Lost a Step Into the Middle Class, Researchers Say,” The New York Times, January 14, 2022, available at; IBM, “IBM Apprenticeship Program,” available at (last accessed October 2022).
  22. Executive Office of the President, “Executive Order 13932: Modernizing and Reforming the Assessment and Hiring of

    Federal Job Candidates,” Federal Register 85 (127) (2020): 39457­–39459, available at; The White House, “Executive Order on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in the Federal Workforce,” June 25, 2021, available at

  23. U.S. Office of Personnel Management, “Qualifications, Assessment, and Hiring Policy

    Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs),” available at (last accessed October 2022).

  24. Kiran A. Ahuja, “Re: Updated Interim Guidance – E.O. 13932; Modernizing and Reforming the Assessment and Hiring of Federal Job Candidates,” U.S. Office of Personnel Management, December 29, 2021, available at
  25. Blair, Debroy, and Heck, “Skills, Degrees and Labor Market Inequality.”
  26. Khattar, Zhavoronkova, and Neal, “Investments in the State and Local Government Workforce Will Deliver Crucial Services and Create Economic Security.”
  27. C. Jeffrey Waddoups, “Did Employers in the United States Back Away from Skills Training during the Early 2000s?”, Industrial and Labor Relations Review 69 (2) (2015), available at
  28. Markle, “Skill Works Skill-Based Hiring in the Public Sector”; Gallup, “The American

    Upskilling Study: Empowering Workers for the Jobs of Tomorrow” (Washington: 2021), available at; Daron Acemoglu and Jorn-Steffen Pischke, “Why do Firms Train? Theory and Evidence,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 113 (1) (1998): 79–119, available at

  29. Michael Flanagan, director, Massachusetts Department of Labor Standards, interview with authors via video, September 12, 2022, on file with author.
  30. Massachusetts Department of Labor Standards, “Industrial Safety and Health Inspector I”, job description on file with author.
  31. Danielson DeAndrade, industrial safety and health inspector I, Massachusetts Department of Labor Standards, interview with authors via phone, September 30, 2022, on file with author.
  32. Opportunity@Work, “Tear the Paper Ceiling Hiring Playbook, Chapter 1: Seeing STARs: A Skills-Based Approach to an Inclusive Workforce,” available at (last accessed October 2022)
  33. Colorado Governor Jared Polis, “Gov. Polis Takes Innovative Action to Attract New & Skilled Talent to State Workforce,” Press release, April 14, 2022, available at
  34. Ibid.
  35. Markle, “Rework America Alliance,” available at (last accessed October 2022).
  36. Kathy Duffin, Katherine Keegan, and Audrey Valdez, Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, interview with authors via video, October 5, 2022, on file with authors; Beth Cobert and Jacob Vigil, Markle Foundation, interview with authors via video, August 2, 2022, and September 13, 2022, on file with authors.
  37. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Table 3. Union affiliation of employed wage and salary workers by occupation and industry,” available at (last accessed October 2022).
  38. Opportunity@Work, “Rise with the STARs.”
  39. An Act to amend Tennessee Code Annotated, Title 4; Title 8; Title 49 and Title 50, relative to state employment, H.B.1916, Tennessee General Assembly, Regular Sess. (April 25, 2022), available at
  40. Mark Townend, director, Recruitment and Examination Division State of Maryland, interview

    with author via Zoom, July 22, 2022, on file with author.

  41. Opportunity@Work, “Tear the Paper Ceiling Hiring Playbook for Employers.”
  42. MassHire, “Massachusetts Virtual Job Fair,” (last accessed November 2022).
  43. Baltimore Department of Human Resources, “Baltimore City Joint Apprenticeship Program,” available at (last accessed November 2022); Robert Lerman, John Marotta, and Myca San Miguel, “Leading by Example: Public Sector Apprenticeships in Kentucky” (Washington: Urban Institute, 2019), available at
  44. JFF, “Public Sector Jobs Digital Innovation Project,” available at (last accessed November 2022).
  45. Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, “Apprenticeship Funding Opportunities,” available at (last accessed October 2022).

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Marina Zhavoronkova

Former Senior Fellow

Kate Naranjo

Consultant, Opportunity@Work


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