Arkansas has one of the lowest concentrations of residents holding college degrees, while Texas is about average. Even in states where degrees are much more common, at least half the workforce does not have a bachelor's degree or higher. 

Meanwhile, almost 70% of jobs created between 2012 and 2019 were in occupations that require a degree, creating a barrier between the labor market and the workers available to fill it.

This barrier has become known as the "paper ceiling," and a growing number of large employers and state governments are acknowledging that degree requirements are often more aspirational than essential for job performance. But with an increasing number of employers — and 90% of big corporations — using automated systems to screen resumes, even highly experienced and skilled workers can't get a foot in the door if they can't list a degree. 

In September, Arkansas' largest employer, Walmart Inc., joined dozens of other large employers, the Ad Council and a Washington, D.C., nonprofit called Opportunity@Work to create the Tear the Paper Ceiling campaign. Its goal is to encourage more employers to remove the degree barrier whenever possible and to recognize the value of workers who are “skilled through alternative routes" — people the campaign calls STARS. 

Other partners in the campaign include household names like Chevron, Google and LinkedIn. Walmart says removing the degree barrier for employment is a complementary goal for its existing programs to subsidize college degrees for employees who want them.

"Creating paths of opportunity for everyone depends on a skills-based approach to hiring and advancing workers," Kathleen McLaughlin, Walmart's chief sustainability officer and president of the Walmart Foundation, said in a press release. "Opportunity@Work and the Ad Council's Tear the Paper Ceiling campaign highlights the enormous unrealized potential for workers, employers and our economy that will come from reorienting our workforce systems toward skills rather than the way skills have been acquired. We are excited to build on our work with Opportunity@Work and others since we began our Retail Opportunity initiative in 2015 to drive change in the workforce system through our business and philanthropy."

In the spring of 2022 — months before Tear the Paper Ceiling launched, but after the post-pandemic worker shortage became obvious — Maryland and Colorado abolished degree requirements for most state jobs. In recent months, the governors of four more culturally and politically varied states have taken similar action — Utah in December, Pennsylvania in January, Alaska in February and New Jersey earlier this month.

Arkansas' new governor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, imposed a hiring freeze immediately after taking office in January and has not announced changes in degree requirements for state jobs. But her office said in a statement that she is "supportive of removing barriers" that prevent qualified individuals from getting jobs.

"She signed an executive order in her first month that created the Governor’s Workforce Cabinet and Chief Workforce Officer, it was also a key part of her transformative education legislation that is now law. The Governor wants all Arkansans to have the ability to attain a high-paying job with growth opportunities whether that includes a path through traditional college or technical education and workforce training."


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