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In Search for Qualified Workers, Maryland Drops Requirement for 4-Year Degree

Workers with alternative credentials expand your talent pool, SHRM study says

A group of business people sitting in a row.

Maryland's recent elimination of a four-year college degree as a job requirement for thousands of the state's jobs is shining a spotlight on the value of alternative credentials and experience.

The aim of the state initiative—which the governor's office says is the first of its kind in the U.S.—is to ensure that "qualified, non-degree candidates are regularly being considered for these career-changing opportunities," Gov. Larry Hogan said in a news release.

More than 38,000 people work for the state, according to Hogan's office, and the state's Department of Budget and Management (DBM) estimated more than half of those jobs can be performed by people whose experience, training and/or community college education can substitute for a four-year college degree. Maryland estimated that nearly half of the 2.8 million workers in the state—47 percent—are workers who are "Skilled Through Alternative Routes" (STARs) and have learned their skills through apprenticeships and other certification programs.

"There are over 1 million Marylanders who do not have bachelor's degrees but do have skills for jobs that are in demand by both the state of Maryland and other employers," said Byron Auguste, CEO and co-founder of Opportunity@Work, in a news statement.

His Washington, D.C.-based workforce development organization will work with the DBM to identify Maryland STARs ages 25 and older who have the skills to work in IT, administration and customer service.

Lynn Happel, SHRM-SCP, landed a newly created HR position at her organization many years ago despite not having the four-year degree or equivalent education and experience required. She had, though, graduated from a two-year business school and earned certification as a professional secretary—a credential now known as Certified Administrative Professional—that exposed her to HR duties such as benefits enrollment and onboarding.

"My entry into HR was 'backdoor' inasmuch as my original profession was secretary and administrative assistant," recalled Happel, who has retired as director of HR for the Housing Authority of the city of Annapolis, Md.

Over the years, she furthered her education by attending hundreds of seminars and educational courses, including some college classes.

"I totally understand there are positions that, due to their specialty or complexity, would require a four-year degree or higher," she said. "However, there are plenty of positions that hard work and continual learning would meet the qualifications and requirements."

John Mauck, SHRM-SCP, vice president of HR at Library Systems & Services in Rockville, Md., was hired years ago as an HR director at another organization based in West Virginia, despite not having an undergraduate degree.

"I actually worked my way up through HR without my degree," he said. "I was hired based on my skill and experience. This may have slowed down my opportunity to move further in my career because employers did require it and would not hire me even though I was highly qualified."

Mauck eventually earned a bachelor's degree, a master's degree in business administration and several certifications. He is currently working on his doctorate. He also is president and owner of West Virginia-based Mountain State Human Resources.

What Are Alternative Credentials?

Nationally, nearly half (45 percent) of all U.S. workers possess some form of an alternative credential, according to research the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the SHRM Foundation conducted with executives, supervisors, HR professionals and employees.

Alternative credentials focus on specific skills, can be earned consecutively or "stacked," can be verified, frequently are earned digitally, and often are aligned to industries, according to the SHRM report Making Alternative Credentials Work: A New Strategy for HR Professionals.

The majority of such credentials take a shorter time to earn than a four-year degree—although some apprenticeships take longer than four years to complete—and are signified by:

  • Professional certification, such as the SHRM-CP and SHRM-SCP for HR professionals. Individuals can earn certifications by completing apprenticeships or programs such as Grow with Google, which emphasizes digital skills. Since 2017, more than 7 million people have completed Grow with Google, providing them with the skills to work in IT support, data analytics, user experience design and project management.
  • Virtual badges. These signal that the individual has demonstrated specialized knowledge in continually evolving topic areas, such as the SHRM U.S. Employment Immigration Specialty Credential and other specialty credentials. Schools such as Georgetown University and the University of Maryland embrace badge programs for their students, according to Columbia Business Monthly.
  • Micro-credentials. These are earned through shorter programs of study focused on specific skills in a chosen field.

[SHRM members-only resource: How to Address the Skills Gap]

Considering job seekers with alternative credentials opens the door to a more diverse pool of candidates, according to the SHRM report.

"These credentials are popular with job seekers who are often excluded from the talent market—older workers, people without formal higher education, and others with nonlinear or nontraditional work histories, like veterans, people who were formerly incarcerated and those who have been out of the workforce for some time," the report noted.

Nationally, 61 percent of STARs are Black, 55 percent are Hispanic and 61 percent are veterans, according to the Maryland governor's office. And SHRM found that credential-holders may include workers ages 50 and older, some of whom receive training through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. Additionally, military veterans are more likely than nonveterans to have earned certifications, according to a November 2019 report from the Lumina Foundation.

"Alternative credentials are key to uncovering untapped talent, especially when it comes to those job seekers who may not have the opportunity to build skills in a traditional way but have the competencies they need to succeed," SHRM Foundation President Wendi Safstrom said. 

"Not only does this allow companies access to a diverse talent pool," she added, "but also a majority of executives, supervisors and HR professionals believe that including alternative credentials in hiring decisions can actually improve overall workplace diversity." 


Seventy-seven percent of 1,129 U.S. HR professionals SHRM surveyed said they frequently come across job seekers who hold alternative credentials. However, many organizations' automated applicant tracking systems (ATSs) typically don't collect information on alternative credentials from job seekers as they do with traditional work experience and schooling.

Less than one-third of respondents (31 percent) said their organization's ATS has a general section on the application where job seekers can indicate alternative credentials. Other approaches organizations use to gather information on alternative credentials include having an ATS with a designated section to enter that information (20 percent); asking specific questions about credentials (18 percent); and having a designated, auto-fill section within the ATS to collect that information (14 percent). Seventeen percent weren't sure how their ATS collects credentialing information.

SHRM found that employers have the following misconceptions about alternative credentials:

  • They find the plethora of credentials makes it complicated and time-consuming to evaluate their worth when making hiring or promotion decisions.

Employers find it difficult to compare the equivalency of alternative credentials to traditional degrees or years of experience. HR professionals may seek proof of quality by referring to a qualifying exam or the credential's connection to a specific industry, the report noted.

The report recommended viewing alternative credentials as indicators of a candidate's ability to perform in a given role and having the specific, evolving knowledge that employers seek in workers, instead of as a substitute for a formal degree or years of experience.

  • They view alternative credentials as a labor-market fad. Rising costs of higher education and the speed at which technologies are evolving, though, "mean alternative credentials will continue to expand as a way to close the skills gap," the report noted.
  • They view alternative credentials as less valuable than traditional college degrees.

Certifications and similar credentials signal the acquisition of more up-to-date skills, according to the SHRM Foundation, whose certificate programs include workplace mental health, hiring and retaining veterans, HR apprenticeships, and employing people with disabilities.

The report is based on findings from surveys conducted in July and August 2021 of 500 U.S. executives, 1,200 U.S. supervisors, 1,129 U.S. HR professionals and 1,525 U.S. workers with no direct reports. 

Findings also included feedback from HR professionals, hiring managers and business leaders about their experiences and perceptions of alternative credentials.

Making Alternative Credentials Work: A New Strategy for HR Professionals, and a second report, The Rise of Alternative Credentials in Hiring, were released April 20 and made possible by a grant from Walmart to the SHRM Foundation. 

Other SHRM resources:


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