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Hennepin County reduces unnecessary job requirements to open up hiring opportunities

MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
Hennepin County Workforce Development Director John Thorson: “It’s a philosophy that employers are going to have to move toward to be successful in this job market, which is to begin hiring for potential, not just a credential.”

Say you have been tinkering with computer brains your whole life, but your college degree isn’t in computer science or a related field. Chances are you won’t be considered for an IT job interview in many public and private companies.

Same goes if you are trying to secure a general maintenance position in Minnesota without a valid driver’s license — even though you may not be required to drive for work-related duties.

It’s common for employers to place a list of qualifications on their job applications, including narrowly defined degrees, years of experience and driver’s licenses. In many cases, said Hennepin County Workforce Development Director John Thorson, some of those qualifications tend to discourage applicants from applying for positions.

Now, he’s changing that.  

Tackling persistent disparities

Thorson has been leading a fairly new Workforce Development Strategic Initiative recently crafted by the county. The initiative is meant to tackle the persistent economic disparities in the region by connecting more people to county jobs as baby boomers retire. 

Since the end of the Great Recession in 2009, Minnesota has been on track for a modest economic recovery — with the unemployment rate gradually ticking down and job growth gaining momentum.

Despite this economic recovery, hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans are struggling financially. In Hennepin County alone, 250,000 residents are receiving some kind of social service assistance each day. That’s more than just a number, Thorson was quick to say; they’re real people with dreams to provide for their families and to sustain a meaningful life without government handouts.

Hennepin County administrators have created the initiative to create a diverse and inclusive work force and to remove unnecessary barriers that may prevent potential employees from making their mark in the job market.       

Unnecessary barriers

County officials and administrators point to some requirements for certain positions, which they say have long barred people from considering jobs with the county, one of the largest employers in the Twin Cities.   

“We’re actually re-assessing the qualifications that people have to have to perform certain jobs,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin. “More qualifications are layered on our jobs. So people started being excluded.”

And that’s not healthy for the region’s economic well-being. The Twin Cities region is poised to lose 220,000 employees to retirement — and not enough candidates are prepared to fill that void.

But implementation of the initiative that Thorson was hired to lead is now under way. In fact, it has taken shape in many parts of the county, fostering economic opportunities across the region, removing barriers for job-seekers and creating pathways to employment. 

“Hennepin County for decades has kind of worked on the supply side of the work force equation,” he noted. “We’ve provided direct services to folks. We’ve contracted with community-based organizations to help individuals with vocational services.”

Today, the county finds itself leading in the “demand-side” of the equation. Target populations for the initiative include individuals who are now on public assistance programs, the unemployed or underemployed, immigrants and other communities of color.  

Evaluating qualifications for each job

One of the plans in the workforce initiative package is to evaluate and change the county’s current hiring practices and to remove barriers that would prevent people from seeking employment with the county.

The county has recently made adjustments to dozens of job classifications to “right-size” the minimum and preferred qualifications. As new jobs get posted, county department heads are evaluating every position’s qualifications to see whether they’re actually needed for the job.

For instance, if a requirement isn’t necessary for a certain position, it’s removed from the application — a move that will create more opportunities and more diverse applicant pool.

The county has also assessed the qualifications for its IT jobs, which required a bachelor’s degree in computer science or a related field. That has now changed as applicants with any 4-year degree can seek IT employment, as long as they have competence in the field.

“It’s a philosophy that employers are going to have to move toward to be successful in this job market, which is to begin hiring for potential, not just a credential,” Thorson noted. 

Another big change is also happening in the county’s work force: Leaders are looking at education requirements for each opening. For example, if a position requires a bachelor’s degree, they’re evaluating the job to see if individuals with an associate degree can perform the work.

Likewise, the county is changing other decades-old practices. For example, some jobs list that an employee must be able to lift up to 50 pounds to be considered. “Well, if that isn’t going to be part of what folks are doing, then that presents a barrier for folks,” Thorson noted. “It doesn’t need to be part of the qualification.”

The county’s general maintenance-worker positions used to require applicants to have a valid driver’s license. But as part of the initiative, it’s been removed from the list.   

“If they can show up to work, we don’t care how they get there,” Thorson explained. “As part of their duties, we never ask them to go anywhere. That’s a barrier … for folks that would do this work, and do it well.”

Partnering with others

While leaders and administrators are focused on evaluating and changing some of the county’s job qualifications, the model is attracting other public employers and institutions, including the University of Minnesota as well as Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC).

For example, MCTC has recently eliminated the math requirement for its heating, ventilation and air program. “The program is now attracting more students who are able to pass the reading requirement for the program,” noted Mike Christenson, the college’s associate vice president of workforce development.

The college has also dropped its boiler’s license requirement for those training for building operations jobs because modern facilities don’t rely on boilers for heat.

In the employment end, the state, U of M and the county have also removed the boiler’s license requirement from their building operations positions to attract more employees.   

“Hennepin County’s management team directed us to de-emphasize the boiler’s license,” Christenson added. “So, we are hopeful that that continues to happen.”

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Dan Berg on 03/28/2016 - 11:31 am.

    Good idea

    Makes sense to reevaluate qualifications to jobs with some regularity. Another aspect of this which should be considered is that there is a potential budget savings. As qualifications are eased the salaries needed to be competitive in the market should go down a bit as well.

    • Submitted by Pat McGee on 03/28/2016 - 01:51 pm.

      Qualifications not being “eased”

      The article says that Unnecessary qualifications are being eliminated NOT relevant qualifications. It does not follow that by eliminating irrelevant qualifications that salaries would go down. A Sharepoint expert, for example, who meets all the relevant qualifications but not the irrelevant drivers license, for example, could now compete for a job in a highly competitive market.

      • Submitted by Dan Berg on 03/30/2016 - 09:59 am.

        Not one or the other

        There are examples in the article of requirements being eased. Particularly around education. Even eliminating the requirement for a drivers license as irrelevant to the position was easing a requirement. Either case increases the pool of potential applicants and increases the chance that the position can be filled at a lower cost.

  2. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 03/28/2016 - 02:53 pm.

    The overall direction of this elimination of some qualifications for jobs with the county (and the U of MN, and the Community College) is to ease them, to require fewer things, so that less-qualified people will apply for, and get, jobs that they couldn’t have received before. It’s to include a less-qualified, or less-certified, population of possible hires. That’s a policy direction we can agree with, or be nervous about.

    Count me among the nervous. For example, math proficiency is no longer required for heating and cooling people, even though mathematical calculations of the area to be heated or cooled is essential to setting up a system and gauging its adequacy. The applicants do have to be able to read, however, so maybe they won’t have to do more than follow someone else’s written calculations. Nervous-making. Same goes for a self-taught IT applicant who studied accounting or music in college, say, versus someone with a college major in computing and coding skills or electrical engineering. Nervous-making, because it denies the validity of formal study in a field.

    The fact that we used to have a more-educated workforce, and now we don’t, is brushed over in this article and maybe in the policy. “Unnecessary” qualifications is a label that may cover many sins, and hide a very slippery slope.

  3. Submitted by joe smith on 03/29/2016 - 09:23 am.

    Is it just coincidence that we are lowering standards in the work place at the same time we are lowering standards in public schools? As we pass students from grade to grade without being proficient in math, reading and writing skills just for the money that follows that child, we will have a less educated workforce.

    Running a fabrication shop we would bring in apprentice welders to give them a chance, many never made it. 99% of all certified class A welders that came to the shop received employment and stayed on. Depending on the job, education and experience count.

    I’m all for eliminating useless requirements for certain jobs, but shouldn’t Hennepin county hire the best with our tax dollars? How about the contractor for your dream house told you that he was going to use unskilled finishers in your house to give “others” a chance? You wouldn’t accept that with your own money but with Govt (our tax dollars) that is the norm and applauded by many.

  4. Submitted by Clete Erickson on 03/29/2016 - 02:11 pm.


    What is the HR department in Hennepin County doing? They have to bring in an outsider to evaluate job descriptions and needs?

    Each time they post a job they should be evaluating what is needed and post the job based on that need. Seems to me the evaluation of job/duties should always be updated. Things might not change but the skill set for running computers 15 years ago is a lot different than it is today.

    Seems like a good idea but I wonder why this was not an on-going process.

  5. Submitted by Michael Hess on 03/29/2016 - 03:24 pm.

    Untended consequences

    So today there is a population who doesn’t apply because they don’t meet the requirements – some of what was required will now be in the preferred category instead.

    So for the IT example maybe you have two applicants one with a 4 year BA in history and IT proficiency, one with a BS in computer science with the same experience. That degree difference could sway the hiring manager.

    So there will be a population who is now qualified to apply but may be at a disadvantage compared to those with those preferred credentials. If the county doesn’t see hirIng changes they may be criticized for showIng a bias in who they hire. If there is a demographic overlay to this group This could lead to charges of discrimination against ‘fully qualified’ individuals.

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