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Do Gov IT Workers Still Need a Four-Year Degree?

As public-sector technology advances, so are the hiring practices of state and local government agencies, many of whom now consider more than just advanced degrees when looking for top talent.

According to a recent study by, about one-third of young adults 18 to 24 who aren’t currently enrolled in college cannot afford to attend. And while there is more than one perspective on recent federal student loan forgiveness programs, some facts are undeniable. College is more expensive than ever before: The costs of a degree have significantly outpaced wage growth and inflation for decades.

It’s against this backdrop that government IT leaders have struggled to fill open positions to accomplish the technical work of running their organizations. Simultaneously, most of these same institutions strive to build a workforce that reflects the diversity of the communities they serve.

In the last several years, government has started to reckon with some related legacy business processes: job descriptions that require expensive four-year degrees that are unattainable to large segments of the population and years of experience that even those who do get those degrees don’t yet have. Combined, these factors keep would-be government staffers away from the public sector.

Thankfully, things are starting to change. IT shops are reviewing things like job classifications that are a relic of another time. Government is purging position descriptions that list requirements for outdated skills and use archaic terms to denote certain technical jobs. After all, nobody ever said they wanted to grow up to be an analyst 1Ce, Level 3.

Illinois Secretary of the Department of Innovation and Technology and CIO Jennifer Ricker is one among many state CIOs prioritizing creative approaches to filling the talent pipeline. The state is building more flexibility into its hiring practices, such as adding new entry-level titles where new staff can train on the job, “creating many pathways in.”

“You maybe have certifications only or you have a two-year degree, you might have military experience that’s relevant or some other work experience beyond educational requirements,” she said. “We’re trying to create as many possible ways to get to talent as possible.”

The challenges Ricker and her peers are confronting aren’t unique to government. Amped Louisville founder Dave Christopher started a music program in 2014 in Louisville, Ky., to give youth something productive to do after school. Data showed it was working — improved grades and attendance and fewer disciplinary issues — but he soon realized the parents needed help as well. He brought his own IT background to bear and introduced a program to equip their parents with technology skills. But tech employers wouldn’t hire them. After all, they lacked a four-year degree and several years’ experience — the same barriers faced by would-be government IT workers.

“They know the work, they know how to get the stuff done, they just don’t have that piece of paper that they can’t afford to get and they don’t have the years of experience because they don’t have the piece of paper,” Christopher explained.

Undeterred, Christopher began pursuing contracts with these same companies and hired his trainees to do the work. Eventually, the companies caught on and started hiring them directly into good-paying technology jobs.

The mission of Amped Louisville is to “amplify and accelerate the economic and equity transformation of Black and brown communities.” And having a technology professional in the household changes the thinking of everyone within it about their economic future, Christopher said.

“All we’re doing is we’re leveling the playing field and making it such that they can then take care of themselves because they want to be independent, they want to take care of their own kids,” he said.

Creative programs like Christopher’s and creative thinking in public-sector IT organizations provide reasons to be optimistic about the future of the technology workforce, inside and outside of government.
Noelle Knell is the executive editor for e.Republic, responsible for setting the overall direction for e.Republic’s editorial platforms, including Government Technology, Governing, Industry Insider, Emergency Management and the Center for Digital Education. She has been with e.Republic since 2011, and has decades of writing, editing and leadership experience. A California native, Noelle has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history.