Delaware's workforce development strategy is smartly adjusting to new realities

On Jan. 10, Gov. John Carney announced that about 350 state jobs under The Delaware Department of Human Resources would no longer require a bachelor’s degree, adding to the approximately 210 state positions opened in previous changes to requirements for certain state roles. The move is aligned with national hiring trends in the private and government sectors, with former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and the federal government already making similar pronouncements.

On the change, he said, “By aligning job requirements with professional experience, and placing more attention on the skills of an individual candidate, we will better serve Delawareans.”

The conversation about the return on investment of higher education is long overdue.

On Oct. 1, 133,600 Delaware residents resumed making payments on more than $5.1 billion in cumulative student loan debt. With Delaware ranking No. 49 in states for lowest student debt at graduation, two generations of employees, millennial and Gen Z, worry that they will never be able to afford a home or retire due to crushing student debt levels.

Delaware Gov. John CarneyDelaware Gov. John Carney

Delaware Gov. John Carney

The decision also tackles a workforce bottleneck. The unemployment rate in Delaware was 4.2% in November 2023, compared to the national rate of 3.7% in the same month. Even as there are more jobs than people in Delaware, there persists a stark misalignment of skills employers need versus available workers with the desired training.

In the governor’s press release, Claire DeMatteis, secretary of the Delaware Department of Human Resources, said, “a bachelor’s degree can be an unnecessary barrier to employing otherwise qualified professionals.”

By removing a barrier for skilled people who were shut out of thriving wage jobs because they did not have a particular degree, the governor’s announcement brings hope. According to the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey covering the five-year period ending in 2022, a majority of Delawareans — 66% — age 25 and older have no bachelor’s degree. They can now benefit from the state’s focus on skills-specific requirements.

There’s no doubt that in the long-term a college degree will continue to be a worthwhile pursuit. The 2021 median income for residents of Delaware with a bachelor’s degree was approximately $61,000 compared to a median income of $35,600 for high school graduates without a college degree. These income and opportunity gaps compound annually and span generations.

One thing is clear: to remain relevant, the higher education sector must adapt to new realities. To this end, nonprofit, accredited Western Governors University leads the Open Skills Network, a coalition of employers, education providers, policy makers, military, non-profits and other stakeholders dedicated to advancing skills-based education and hiring.

The mission includes workforce development efforts like skills mapping to ensure our graduates have the skills employers need by aligning curricula closely with what hiring managers actually need. OSN partners are working together to create a national system of competency-based education, which measures skills and subject knowledge rather than time spent in a classroom. Each student individually progresses through courses as soon as they can prove they have mastered the material.

The flexibility of this approach means that students are able to work full-time while also acquiring skills for a future job at a pace that is best for them. This approach benefits both workers and employers by saving time and money and developing a more diverse workforce that meets the needs of our modern economy.

We stand at a crossroads in terms of how we develop talent for our workforce. Delaware is facing a skills gap, leading to shortfalls in qualified employees in a wide range of critical fields, including education, fintech and manufacturing, among others. When skilled workers without college degrees are given the opportunity to earn a living wage, they have the means to expand their career opportunities through a competency-based education.

Cynthia Merrill serves as interim regional vice president for Western Governors University, a nonprofit, accredited university focused on competency-based learning that serves more than 850 students and alumni in Delaware.

This article originally appeared on Delaware workforce development: Carney responds to new reality

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