Alaska Gov. Dunleavy orders review of state jobs that could have degree requirements removed

JUNEAU — Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Tuesday ordered a review of which state jobs could have four-year college degree requirements eliminated as a way to tackle the public sector’s recruitment and retention crisis.

Over 17% of funded state government positions were vacant in December, according to the Office of Management and Budget. The vacancy rates ranged across state agencies: the Department of Law had the lowest at 11%, while the Department of Natural Resources had the highest, with almost one-quarter of its funded positions currently unoccupied.

Dunleavy’s administrative order gives the Department of Administration responsibility for reviewing which state positions could use “practical experience” instead of — or in addition to — a college degree. State jobs in which a college degree is legally required would not be changed, according to the order.

Dunleavy said in a prepared statement that the value of apprenticeships, military experience and on-the-job training should be recognized when hiring state workers.

“If a person can do the job, we shouldn’t be holding anyone back just because they don’t have a degree,” he said.

The Department of Administration did not immediately have figures for how many state jobs currently require a four-year degree. The department will review 647 job classifications, representing thousands of employees, to see which degree requirements could be removed.

The review process would be ongoing, and classifications would continue to be updated, but there was no timeline when it would be completed, the department said.


“I think it’s a great idea,” said Joelle Hall, president of the Alaska AFL-CIO. She said the federation of Alaska unions had always emphasized the importance of apprenticeships in getting young people into the job market.

[A shrinking workforce is hobbling Anchorage’s economic recovery, report says]

But Hall said that a more generous retirement scheme would be essential for public sector workers, alongside greater investment in the University of Alaska, which she called “a workforce engine.”

“If we are going to constrain the workforce by constraining the University of Alaska, we’re just shooting ourselves in the foot,” she said.

The state’s largest public sector union also welcomed Dunleavy’s announcement, with caveats.

“I think this is an area where we agree with the governor,” said Heidi Drygas, executive director of ASEA/AFSCME Local 52. “I think this is a common sense solution to the challenges that we are all experiencing in the current labor market.”

Drygas said the state would need to be careful not to reduce wages if job classifications changed. She termed the governor’s order as “a small lever” to pull to address the state’s workforce challenges, and said that increasing salaries and returning to a defined benefits pension scheme would be more impactful.

The Alaska House and Senate have said that tackling the recruitment and retention crisis in the public and private sectors is a top priority this legislative session. The Senate majority coalition wants to investigate whether returning to a defined benefits pension scheme is economically feasible.

[Alaska public worker shortage fuels renewed interest in pension plan]

The Legislature abolished pensions for new state employees in 2006 amid a multibillion-dollar shortfall in the pension fund. Alaska is the only state where public sector workers are ineligible for a pension or Social Security.

The Dunleavy administration has tried to incentivize more people into state service to address critical shortages. New Alaska State Troopers can get a $20,000 signing bonus, and correctional officers are eligible for a $10,000 bonus once they pass the academy. The Legislature passed a bill last year to give attorneys at the Department of Law a 20% pay raise.

Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski said that the governor’s order could “help around the edges,” but it wouldn’t address some of the state’s most pressing challenges.

It would not help with a teacher shortage, as they would still be required to hold a degree. It would also not help with a shortage of public defenders in Nome and Bethel, which has stopped the agency from accepting new clients facing serious felony charges, Wielechowski said.

[Where are workers to fill all the empty jobs in Anchorage? It’s complicated.]

But the elimination of degree requirements for public sector jobs has been spreading across the U.S. President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump both directed federal agencies to emphasize experience over degrees for some federal jobs.

Several other states have recently eliminated degree requirements for most state jobs. Governors of Maryland, Utah and Pennsylvania all made those changes in the past two years.

The Pittsburgh-Post Gazette reported in Pennsylvania that the change had a relatively limited ceiling. Across the roughly 72,000-person executive branch, 135 job titles required a bachelor’s degree. And department managers could use equivalent experience and training for 101 of those job titles, the newspaper reported.


Opportunity@Work, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, partnered with the Maryland government to eliminate degree requirements in that state. The nonprofit seeks to get the 70 million Americans who are skilled — but do not have a college degree — into higher-paying jobs, representing half of the country’s workforce.

Cheston McGuire, director of public affairs at the nonprofit, referred to degree requirements as a “paper ceiling” for entering the public sector. He cited Alaska data that showed minorities are disproportionately less likely to have a college degree.

“If you’re looking to diversify your workforce, this is one of the most handy ways to do that,” he said.

Sean Maguire

Sean Maguire is a politics and general assignment reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Juneau. He previously reported from Juneau for Alaska's News Source. Contact him at smaguire@adn.com.