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Study: Many Jobs Calling for College Degree Don't Really Need One

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Oct 25, 2017

A recently released Harvard Business School study has found that 6.2 million jobs are at risk of "degree inflation," that is requiring college degrees when it's really not necessary for the job at hand. This not only shrinks the pool of available workers for companies, it also shuts people out of good jobs that they're actually qualified to work, as only one third of people in the U.S. actually have a four-year degree.So, despite record-high numbers of job postings (6.1 million by July 2017 alone), millions upon millions of people remain unemployed or underemployed.

"When asked if they 'reject some individuals who have the skills and experience to be successful in a middle-skills job because they don’t meet the requirement of having a
four-year degree,' 61% of survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed," said the report. 

This is not necessarily due to the changing nature of a job, as the study found that many times those who already have the position do not have the qualifications being asked for in the posting. For instance, while 67 percent of open production worker supervisor positions required a college degree, only 16 percent of workers already employed in this position actually have one. This amounts to a 51 percent "degree gap." The skills required generally aren't that different either. The report notes that nine out of ten office worker job postings ask for the exact same skills regardless of whether they require a college degree: supervisory skills; customer service; Microsoft Excel; accounting; Microsoft Office; budgeting; staff management; scheduling; and office management. 

Other occupations with significant degree gaps include: executive secretaries and executive administrative assistants (47 percent), supervisors of construction trades and extraction workers (44 percent), supervisors of landscaping, lawn service and groundskeeping workers (55 percent), transportation, storage and distribution managers (44 percent), and surveying and mapping technicians (40 percent). 

Professions with the lowest degree gaps include customer service representatives (3 percent), bill and account collectors (11 percent), fitness trainers and aerobics instructors (13 percent), correctional officers and jailers (14 percent), and loan officers (15 percent). 

Overall, jobs that that are critical for a business’ success, that pay well, and that offer decent prospects for career advancement are most at risk for degree inflation.

To figure out why this is all happening, the study's authors surveyed 600 business and human resources leaders from companies ranging in size from 50 to 10,000 workers. 
What they found was that, in general, employers were using a college degree as an overall proxy for both hard (70 percent) and soft (60 percent) skills. For many companies, a bachelor’s degree signals that the person has put themselves through four years of college, so they have certain life experiences, commitment levels, and
organization levels.

Ironically enough, though, nearly half of employers, 49 percent, don't see much difference between those who have college degrees and those who don't, in terms of productivity. In fact, relevant work experience was cited as the most important factor when evaluating a candidate (37 percent), while an even larger proportion, 40 percent, said that a four-year degree was the least important factor. 

Still, said the report, "the survey findings show that employers believe they are
reacting 'logically.' In their thinking, the rising demand for a college-degree requirement is a symptom of the rapid pace of change in the nature of jobs—and a quick-fix solution
used by employers to acquire specific skills in the absence of a systemic shift in the way middle-skills workers are being prepared to enter the workforce." 

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