Many California government jobs don’t require a college degree. That list may grow longer as agencies face a rise in job vacancies.

Over the past decade, California cities, counties, and the state government have been changing the job descriptions for thousands of employees — either by removing the requirement for a high school, college, or graduate-level degree or by detailing alternative ways that candidates can gain the same skills. Studies show these changes can benefit workers and employers. 

For instance, janitors no longer need a high school degree to work for the state, and staff services analysts, who help administer many of the state’s programs, no longer need a bachelor’s degree.

But while state leaders and scholars agree about the need for more of these changes, they disagree about the best or fastest way to do it.

“Further action is possible,” wrote Gov. Gavin Newsom last year in an executive order about career education. In it, he explicitly asked the California Department of Human Resources to make re-evaluating education requirements a higher priority. 

The governor’s order came after at least 15 states had already enacted similar or more aggressive changes to their hiring practices.

Last year, Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, a Democrat from Orinda, proposed Assembly Bill 1693, which would have put California on par with many other states by making education requirements the exception, rather than the norm, for state employees. “There is no reason for California to have an arbitrary barrier to access these good-paying jobs that benefit our state,” she said.

But earlier this month, that bill died in the Assembly Appropriations Committee. Another, more limited bill by state Sen. Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh, a Republican from Redlands, was introduced on the same day. Senate Bill 943 would waive bachelor’s degree requirements for certain veterans.

“There is no reason for California to have an arbitrary barrier to access these good-paying jobs that benefit our state.”

Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan

Since 2015, the state’s human resources department has changed the requirements for nearly 170 kinds of jobs, which represent about 27,000 people. Bauer-Kahan’s bill would have forced the state to reevaluate the remaining 2,600 other kinds of state jobs over the next year, which represent roughly 200,000 more people, said Camille Travis, a spokesperson for the state’s human resources department. She said the state does not know the number of jobs that currently require a degree because most jobs offer multiple ways for candidates to qualify. 

“We’re not going to do it overnight,” said Monica Erickson, the department’s chief deputy director. She said that changing the job descriptions can be “extremely complex,” requiring input or approval from other state agencies, the State Personnel Board, and unions, if applicable. A legislative committee analysis of the bill said it would cost more than $1 million to hire the human resources staff to process all the job changes.

Solving a ‘hiring crisis’

Often, degrees are used as a proxy for certain skills, such as communication, teamwork, and computer literacy, according to a 2022 report by the Burning Glass Institute, a nonprofit research organization. Removing degree requirements widens the pool of potential applicants, making it easier to recruit more diverse talent, the report said.

At the online job site ZipRecruiter, the benefits are already evident, said Julia Pollak, the company’s chief economist. A 2023 ZipRecruiter survey of more than 2,000 employers found that 72% were prioritizing skills over degree and 45% had gotten rid of degree requirements in some roles in the previous year.

Large companies, especially those in the tech sector, have been vocal about the need for skill-based hiring. IBM said it cut bachelor’s degree requirements from more than half of its U.S. job openings in 2021. 

For many companies, these changes accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic, when staffing shortages pushed employers to rethink their requirements. 

“You don’t need any legislation to push the private sector to do it, but you do need legislation to allow the public sector to do it,” Pollak said.

Before the pandemic, the state’s job vacancy rate was just under 15%. Now it’s at 20%, Erickson said. The growing vacancy rate was the chief concern behind the bill, Bauer-Kahan said.

“It may not meaningfully change who applies and it may not meaningfully change who gets hired, but it’s worth doing if it’s changing the conversation about what these jobs require.”

Sara Hinkley, professor at UC Berkeley

One reason for the high vacancy rate: the number of state employees is growing. Since 2019, the state has added roughly 20,000 positions, an increase of more than 8%, according to Travis, a spokesperson for the state’s human resources department. The same challenges exist in county and city governments, which tend to face even higher vacancy rates, according to a report by the UC Berkeley Labor Center.

More than three-quarters of jobs with the county of San Diego don’t require a degree, a significant increase since the county started reassessing its jobs in 2022. Riverside County approved a motion to consider alternatives to degrees, although the county was unable to provide data before publication about what changes had been made. 

As San Francisco faces an “unprecedented hiring crisis,” a spokesperson for the human resources department, Jack Hebb, said the city has changed the requirements for 267 out of 915 job classifications over the past 10 years. Roughly a quarter of those changes happened after the start of the pandemic, he said. 

Filling state government jobs other ways

Erickson said she believes that changing education requirements can promote equity by removing barriers and can “absolutely” help fill vacancies, but that it’s not a panacea. “People look at pay first,” she said. While the state offers better-than-average pay for many jobs, such as custodial work, other positions, such as police officers, pay below the average wage compared to other workers across the state

The Service Employees International Union, SEIU, is concerned that some employers may change education requirements in order to lower wages, said Sandra Barreiro, a governmental relations advocate for SEIU. While Barreiro didn’t endorse Bauer-Kahan’s bill, the local service workers union that represents public sector employees, SEIU Local 1000, did.

Sara Hinkley, a professor at UC Berkeley and an author of the report on vacancies, said that changing degree requirements is “one small part” of the solution. “It may not meaningfully change who applies and it may not meaningfully change who gets hired, but it’s worth doing if it’s changing the conversation about what these jobs require,” she said. 

Last year, a senior researcher at The Burning Glass Institute posted a new finding on LinkedIn regarding the institute’s earlier report. He found that in reality, employers are hiring more people with college degrees, not fewer, even as they remove education requirements from job posts. 

“Just changing the language of job postings doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to change who you hire,” said institute president Matt Sigelman. Instead he said the focus should be about analyzing what’s really needed and cited IBM, which aggressively removed degree requirements for most positions, later re-introducing those requirements in a few jobs. 

Community colleges reporter for CalMatters in partnership with Open Campus.