By Mitch Pearlstein, Ph.D, Center of the American Experiment, Golden Valley, MN
The United States has vast numbers of excellent, well-paying jobs advertised as requiring less-than a four-year degree and which, in fact, are won and successfully performed every day by people with two-year degrees, one-year certificates, apprenticeship experience, and training in the military. If young men and women coming out of high school really don’t want to seek a baccalaureate, they need not do so.
But with current unemployment rates as low as they are, a flipside variation on the theme is particularly salient: Many jobs advertised as requiring a four-year degree intrinsically don’t. And if employers better recognized how many employees without four-year degrees are already performing superbly in similar, sometimes identical jobs, they might be inclined to drop such an unnecessary requirement, thereby benefiting all parties.
Every year, large numbers of American young people who are not terribly interested in attending a four-year college reluctantly enroll anyway, effectively pressured by combinations of parents, peers, teachers, school counselors, and the normative air they breathe. More than occasionally, they find themselves unemployed or underemployed, in big-time student debt, and quite possibly feeling like a failure.
Cratered paths like these routinely stunt entries to middle-class jobs and careers. These are often needless delays and losses, because other education and career routes are primed to better serve millions of young men and women, especially those who enjoy working with their hands. Taking advantage of these routes also simultaneously enriches the economy.
As for the by-rote practice of declaring a four-year degree “necessary” (or “preferred,” which effectively can mean the same thing), Accenture and the Harvard Business School, in a 2017 study, found that “degree inflation’ — the rising demand for jobs that previously did not require one — is hampering 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 26 million job postings, Accenture and Harvard researchers found that 67 percent of postings for “production supervisor” openings in the United States in 2015 asked for a four-year degree, while only 16 percent of then-employed production supervisors had one. “Our analysis indicates more than 6 million jobs are currently at risk of degree inflation.”
As many employers come to learn with regret, the connection between college graduation and workplace excellence is often minimal. Yes, of course, a college education can be vital to a man or woman’s potential as a person and citizen. I’m all in favor of diplomas. But a four-year degree is not necessarily a strong predictor of job performance. Job training, moreover, regularly takes longer for people with bachelor’s degrees. And their turnover rates are consistently higher.
With unemployment at record lows, a major national problem is simply, or not so simply, finding enough qualified employees to do countless important things. Not surprisingly, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says the “biggest problem facing American business today is the inability of companies to find and hire skilled employees.”
A second major problem, more of an imperative, is expanding equal opportunity by helping businesses diversify their workforces when it comes to race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, and similar characteristics. As well as by increasing the number of veterans who’ve already been well-trained in the military, and where, not incidentally, they routinely demonstrated exceptional leadership.
Suffice it to say, for no other reason than great numbers are doing so already, many smart and eclectic people of character — demonstrably successful and invaluable men and women — are wholly equipped to excel at “four-year jobs” even though they lack four-year degrees. But for more to have the opportunity, substantial numbers of employers need to significantly rethink what post-secondary credentials are truly essential, not just lovely to look at and prestigious to boast about.
From the employee side of the ledger, most people without four-year degrees know the futility of responding to announcements that demand one. Virtually the same is true with newspaper ads stating they’re merely “preferred.” Presuming that employers increasingly recognize how demographics are already demanding they draw from bigger pools, one hopes wider ranges of applicants leap into them.
Mitch Pearlstein is founder and a senior fellow of Center of the American Experiment in Minnesota. His newest book is Education Roads Less Traveled: Solving America’s Fixation on Four-Year Degrees. He’s also on the staff of SwanStaff, a new job placement agency that urges employers to do exactly what he recommends here.