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Opinion: One smart way to win over working-class voters — and help the economy

A woman passes bind a glass door, which displays opening hours and a flier for a job fair.
A sign for a job fair hangs on a USPS door in Bellflower in December. The government entity held a fair with the goal of hiring twenty thousand new postal workers.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
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Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro has held his job for less than a month, so it’s probably too early for him to think about running for president. But it’s not too soon for other governors considering a White House run to do what he did with a splash on his first full day: open up thousands of state jobs to people who don’t have four-year college degrees but do have relevant skills, training or experience.

Democratic and Republican governors should all do this, because it’s commonsense policy. In fact, the first governor to go there (by his account) was a Republican now mulling a presidential campaign: former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who dropped the college requirement for thousands of state jobs last March.

The shift toward more flexible hiring standards is taking off in the private sector, and now there’s movement toward it by both parties. Democratic Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado expanded skills-based hiring in April 2022, GOP Gov. Spencer Cox of Utah took a similar step in December, and Democrat Wes Moore is continuing Hogan’s policy in Maryland.

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This is clearly an economic win for states, especially as new job and employment reports show that the labor market remains tight, and workers are in near-record demand. It is also a political opportunity for both parties to show a commitment to working-class voters.

It’s Democrats who need that most. They are in the doghouse with working-class voters, usually defined as people who don’t have four-year college degrees. This group made up 57% of the electorate in 2022, according to exit polling. Republicans won them by 12 percentage points overall, and if flexible hiring standards are seen as part of their party brand before Democrats lay claim to it, the GOP will strengthen its ties to these voters.

But for certain governors of large blue states whose personas don’t exactly shout “man of the people” — for instance, Gavin Newsom and J.B. Pritzker of Illinois — spotlighting increased flexibility in hiring standards could be a useful element for a presidential campaign. It also has obvious benefits in closely divided swing states (Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Arizona, for a start) that will determine which party wins the White House and the Senate in 2024. It even has potential in red-state races for governor this fall in Kentucky and Mississippi.

Updates to state hiring requirements are often low-key, but amplifying them can have real political impact. Shapiro regularly campaigned on making more state jobs available to people with skills acquired from practical experience, military training, apprenticeships, trade schools and associate degrees. He highlighted this in a TV ad and in his inaugural address and followed through in his first executive order. The Pennsylvania employment website now links to an “Experience Matters” page that lists “all job titles that do not require a degree to qualify.”

Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg told me the approach is helpful, “but it has to be grounded in understanding what’s happening to working people. They’re on edge.” Some national Democrats still don’t get workers’ frustration, he added, but Shapiro and others in swing states showed last year that they do.

The best bipartisan argument for reclassifying as many jobs as possible is the happy real-life consequences of more people being eligible for more jobs: Only 38.9% of Americans over 25 have a four-year college degree, according to the Census Bureau. Another is that it holds great promise — for workers individually, but also for the larger economy.

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Mayors could join governors in easing or removing degree requirements for local government workers, which could help correct several years of sliding interest in public-sector jobs, pinpointed in a Marshall Project study. As for federal government employees, giving credit where it’s due, former President Trump started down the skills-based hiring road in June 2020, and the Biden administration built on that executive order with hiring guidance in May.

As for politics, allowing skills to substitute for degrees is a small, practical step that has broad appeal and a particular upside for Democrats struggling to reconnect with working-class voters. They’d be wise to jump on it before Republicans do.

Jill Lawrence is an opinion writer and author of “The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock.” @JillDLawrence

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