Learning from 26 Million Job Postings

Some less-than-wonderful news, followed by more encouraging news, both of which are preceded by shameless (albeit pertinent) self-promotion.

I have a book coming out by next spring that builds on many of the things Kathy Kersten, Catrin Thorman, and I have been writing about under the banner “Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree” since early 2017.  We’ve been emphatically upbeat, though not without noting a caveat or two as warranted. But while the book is also upbeat, it probes deeper into a few of those caveats and possible problems, as probing deeper is what serious books ought to do.

One such possible problem is written about by two members of the Harvard Business School faculty, Joseph B. Fuller and Manjari Raman, in a 2017 report, Dismissed by Degrees: How Degree Inflation is Undermining U.S. Competitiveness and Hurting America’s Middle Class. It challenges the idea that employers are as willing to hire men and women with credentials other than four-year degrees as my American Experiment colleagues and I contend they are. Never mind that the men and women we’re talking about with A.A.S degrees, one-year and two-year certificates, and the like are fully up to the job.

While they’re on our side of this argument, Fuller and Raman write, based on their superb research, that “Degree inflation–the rising demand for a four-year college degree for jobs that previously did not require one–is a substantive and widespread phenomenon that is making the U.S. labor market more inefficient.” This pattern “hampers companies from finding the talent they need to grow and prosper and hinders Americans from accessing jobs that provide the basis for a decent standard of living.”

Based on a review of a remarkable 26 million job postings, they and their colleagues found, for example, that 67 percent of postings for “production supervisor” jobs in 2015 asked for a four-year degree, while only 16 percent of then-employed production supervisors had one. “Our analysis,” Fuller and Raman write, “indicates that more than 6 million jobs are currently at risk of degree inflation.” Entirely unsurprisingly, CEOs cited in the report said that people with B.A.’s don’t necessarily perform better in middle-skills jobs than those with less-than four-year credentials, and often not as well. Fuller and Raman go on:

Over time, employers defaulted to using college degrees as a proxy for a candidate’s range and depth of skills. This caused degree inflation to spread to more and more middle-skills jobs. That has had negative repercussions on aspiring workers, as well as experienced workers seeking a new position but who lack a [four-year] degree. More important, our survey indicates that most employers incur substantial, often hidden, costs by inflating degree requirements, while enjoying few of the benefits they were seeking.

How to reconcile these findings with evidence that well-trained men and women with less than baccalaureate degrees are, in fact, in great demand in many places, often making more money than those with gaudier degrees? Squaring this circle can be tough, other than by recognizing the United States is a big country with many different and differently accommodating job markets.

I made points like these in drafting the book earlier this year. But then, less than two weeks ago, my colleague Isaac Orr found a piece on “Glassdoor,” a “jobs and recruiting site,” announcing that “Google and Ernst and Young” are just two of the “champion companies” not obsessing over baccalaureates.

The strong economy, featuring uncommonly low unemployment rates, is the main driver of this much happier news. Somewhere in the book I talk about how disorienting current circumstances must be for millions who couldn’t find jobs during the Great Recession and then for quite a while afterwards. As for the more specific matter of earning solid middle-class, mid-level jobs without a four-year degree, the Fuller and Raman findings represent a legitimate hesitation. Yet for young men and women who master marketable skills, almost wherever that might be, the odds–especially now–are decidedly in their favor if they endeavor hard.

Thanks, by the way, for asking about the name of the new book: Education Roads Less Traveled: Solving America’s Fixation on Four-Year Degrees, to be published by Rowman & Littlefield.