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Learning Curve

Are we producing more grads than jobs?

Amy Scott Sep 9, 2014
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Many jobs that used to require a high school diploma or a certificate now demand a four-year college degree, from executive assistants to registered nurses to construction supervisors. 

That is the finding of a new study from labor market analytics firm Burning Glass Technologies, which sorted through millions of online job postings. Some of those jobs — like nursing or drafting — are more complex than they used to be, says Burning Glass Technologies CEO Matt Sigelman.

“At the same time, we also saw lots and lots of jobs where the jobs haven’t changed,” he says.

For example, about half of IT help desk jobs now require a bachelor’s degree, even though the demands of the job are the same as in positions that don’t ask for a degree, the study found. When it comes to executive secretaries and assistants, 65 percent of listings require a B.A., yet only 19 percent of people in those jobs now have one.

A degree has become a convenient way for employers to sort through hundreds of applicants, Sigelman says. “The problem there is that doesn’t necessarily correspond with what makes people successful in the job,” he says.

And it’s made it harder for the nearly two-thirds of American workers without bachelor’s degrees to find work that pays well. For people with degrees, though, employers are willing to pay more.

“You might think that employers are just hiring degrees because they’re there and they can get them cheap,” says economist Tony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “But what the data also shows is that they’re paying for the degrees.”

Even for those with degrees there’s a downside, says Sigelman.

“The bad news is that a lot of the demand is for jobs that you probably didn’t go to college to do,” he says. “If you take on a lot of debt to get a college degree and you wind up working at a job that your parents were able to get without one, then you haven’t really gotten anywhere.”


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