Gov. Kristi Noem looks to nix college requirements for certain South Dakota state jobs
“Not having a postsecondary degree didn’t hold me back, so I hope that qualified, dedicated South Dakotans can have those same opportunities," Noem wrote in announcing the order.
PIERRE, S.D. — Gov. Kristi Noem is looking to expand the pool of roles in state government open to those without a four-year college degree, likely adding South Dakota to a growing list of states that have nixed college requirements on certain state jobs as part of a strategy to attract workers in a tight labor market.
The directive came in the form of an executive order on April 24, with Noem instructing the Bureau of Human Resources to “review and consider” whether the duties of any current or future positions under the state’s executive branch require a four-year college degree, paving the way for those hiring to consider other relevant experiences.
“I took classes for many years, but I did not graduate with my bachelor’s degree until I was already a member of Congress,” Noem wrote in a press release announcing the order. “Not having a postsecondary degree didn’t hold me back, so I hope that qualified, dedicated South Dakotans can have those same opportunities.”
Noem further wrote that requiring college degrees when one may not be needed “makes adding valuable employees to our state’s workforce unduly burdensome and eliminates otherwise highly qualified individuals from consideration.”
In a practice known as skills-based hiring, the executive order indicates some of the interchangeable experiences that may be considered by hiring managers, including employment background; apprenticeship programs; career and technical college certificates or degrees; and military service.
Though specific details have not yet emerged of the scope of the changes, Eric Ollila, the executive director of the South Dakota State Employees Organization, had some concerns.
"It seems to me it's going to be a heck of a task for the commissioner of human resources is go through that and do it equitably, so that people aren't disenfranchised for having a degree at the same time as [the state is] looking at more life experience," he said.
One key exemption in the order includes positions in state government where “performing certain duties without a required degree, licensure or other similar certification is criminal, illegal or unethical.”
State Rep. Tony Venhuizen, of Sioux Falls, a former chief of staff for Noem and Gov. Dennis Daugaard, praised the move, particularly within the context of low unemployment and a scarce workforce.
“I think it's a great idea. I'm glad the governor took this step. There are some jobs that clearly require a particular degree and always will, like lawyers, nurses and engineers,” Venhuizen said. “But there are others where the college degree is essentially a screen to help find applicants who are willing to put the work in, commit themselves to something, see something through that's hard to do and demonstrate a certain base level of ability. And a college degree is a signal of that, but it's not the only signal.”
A bipartisan set of governors and lawmakers in other states have made similar moves over the past year.
In April 2022, Gov. Jared Polis, of Colorado, signed a similar executive order welcoming “equivalent and interchangeable skills for degrees in relevant roles” in state government. Analogous policies have since been implemented by governors in Pennsylvania, Alaska, and Utah, as well as lawmakers in Georgia.
The moves have been lauded by onlookers across the political spectrum.
After Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, did away with degree requirements for more than 90% of state government jobs earlier this year, the conservative publication National Review praised the move as helping unseat the “flawed assumption that a central goal of U.S. education policy should be to get as many young Americans as possible into four-year programs, rather than to open up other pathways and models for success.”
Noem’s executive order indicates she at least partially agrees with the sentiment, as she wrote “many potential employees possessing these postsecondary degree alternatives may have significant contributions to make to state government.”
Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or email@example.com.