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Hennepin County reduces unnecessary job requirements to open up hiring opportunities

The initiative is meant to tackle persistent economic disparities in the region by connecting more people to county jobs as baby boomers retire.

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.”
MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi

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. 

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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.  

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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.”

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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.”