Trump Signs Executive Order Refocusing Federal Hiring on Skills Over Degrees

June 26, 2020 Updated: June 27, 2020

President Donald Trump on Friday signed an executive order that directs the federal government to “open the playing field to all” by giving higher priority to a job applicant’s skills than merely having a formal qualification.

Trump signed the order following a meeting of the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board.

“Our moral obligation is to the American workers, and we’re committed to helping them climb that great ladder of success,” Trump said.

“Unnecessary degree requirements exclude otherwise qualified Americans from Federal employment, impose the expense of college on prospective workers, and disproportionately harm low-income Americans,” the White House said in a statement.

“The order requires Federal agencies to revise and update outdated Federal job qualification standards and candidate assessments, improving the quality and competency of the civil service,” the statement noted.

The president’s adviser and daughter, Ivanka Trump, co-chairs the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board.

“President Trump built the most inclusive economy once and will do it again,” she wrote on Twitter earlier in the day, adding that the executive order directs the U.S. government “to hire on the basis of skills (and) knowledge rather than simply degree requirements.”

President Trump Holds News Conference On Paycheck Protection Program
President Donald Trump and his daughter Ivanka listen as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin speaks during an event on supporting small businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program in the East Room of the White House on April 28, 2020. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Ivanka Trump and other administration officials have pushed to increase opportunities for apprenticeships and have promoted such training and vocational education as alternatives to traditional two-year or four-year college degree programs.

“We are modernizing federal hiring to find candidates with the relevant competencies and knowledge, rather than simply recruiting based on degree requirements,” she said in a statement.

“We encourage employers everywhere to take a look at their hiring practices and think critically about how initiatives like these can help diversify and strengthen their workforce,” she added.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board’s other co-chair, said the need for skills training and apprenticeships is as great as it was before the COVID-19 pandemic forced millions of people out of work, pushing the national unemployment rate above 13 percent in May.

“Americans are eager to get to work but they need our help,” Ross said.

Wilbur Ross
U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross looks on as he speaks during an event organized by the American Chamber of Commerce in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Nov. 8, 2019. (Nhac Nguyen/AFP/Getty Images)

With the move, the White House isn’t eliminating degree requirements altogether but instead will stress skills in jobs where having a degree is less important.

A senior administration official said at a Friday briefing call with reporters that the move “isn’t at the expense of those with a college degree, this is truly just opening the playing field for all.”

Noting that three out of ten college degree holders in the U.S. labor market work in areas unrelated to their field of study, the official explained that the executive order seeks to change the current rules so as to prevent the situation where a more worthy applicant is outcompeted by someone without the required skill set but who has a college degree, even if that academic qualification is not directly relevant to the job.

“Someone with a completely unrelated college degree can now be deemed qualified for a position and outcompete someone—under the current rules—that is qualified for the job based on their skills and abilities, who would not be able to get that job,” the official said. “And that goes counter to the merit-based system and principles of our civil service and I think counter to fairness and getting the best person for the job.”

Trump re-election campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh called the executive order a “groundbreaking directive” in a tweet, arguing that “a person’s skills and experience often mean a lot more than a college degree.”

The federal government is the nation’s largest employer with an estimated 2.1 million civilian workers, excluding postal service employees, according to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

Note: This article was updated from an earlier version to reflect the signing of the executive order, the inclusion of President Donald Trump’s remarks, and the issuance of the White House statement.

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