How Much Work

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part article on “Help Wanted,” a paper about the presumed need for more college graduates.  The first article can be found here.

On Wednesday, I began my critique of “Help Wanted,” a paper published in June by the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce. In today’s piece, I complete my review by examining the authors’ other major argument—that there will be an “accelerating shift to jobs requiring postsecondary education” necessitating an increase in college graduation rates. 

But exactly what does it mean to say that postsecondary education is a “requirement” for a person to do a job? You might think the authors would devote at least a paragraph or two to that question, but they don’t address it at all.

Here is one possible meaning of “requirement” in this context: The work involved in a job is so intellectually demanding that no person who ended formal education after completing high school could possibly learn to do it. 

Imagine a student who recently graduated from high school with a good GPA, successfully completed a number of AP courses, and has SAT or ACT scores above the 75th percentile—a bright young person. Are there entry-level jobs he or she simply cannot do without first taking a lot of college courses?

Yes, a few. Here, for example, is a job posting where the college degree requirement pertains to essential knowledge. I suppose there might be a tiny number of high school grads who could capably do biomedical engineering research, but it makes sense for the employer to confine the search to college graduates with the proper coursework. Let’s agree that this job really requires advanced study.

But how many jobs demand such academic preparation that our bright high school graduate would flounder helplessly if given the work? Not many.  Far more often, the college “requirement” has nothing to do with knowledge you can only get through college study.

Consider, for example, this job posting for a “traffic coordinator” for a business that deals in horror videos. The employer requires applicants to have a bachelor’s degree, but exactly what in the work would be impossible for a mere high school graduate to do? What college courses would our hypothetical high school grad have to take to be capable of coordinating horror video traffic?

The employer in the latter case is using the college credential as a screening mechanism. There are lots of college grads hunting for jobs, so there’s nothing lost in filtering out applicants without degrees.

Critics of the “let’s get more kids through college” movement have repeatedly made that point. I’ll quote from Charles Murray’s 2008 book Real Education, where he observes that for many jobs, “the economic premium for the BA is created by a brutal fact of life about the American job market: Employers do not even interview applicants who do not hold a BA. Even more brutal, the advantage conferred by the BA often has nothing to do with the content of the education. The employer does not value what the student learned, just that the student has a degree.”

Charles Murray is a well-known scholar, but nowhere in the paper do the authors acknowledge his argument that employers often establish education credential requirements just to legally screen out people with less formal education. Are they unaware of it? Or have they avoided it because it undermines their case that America urgently needs to increase college attendance and graduation rates?

And Murray is far from the only person who has observed that America is in the grip of credential inflation that pushes students to get degrees just for the sake of having them. In their book Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money, James Engell and Anthony Dangerfield (both English professors) wrote, “[T[he United States has become the most rigidly credentialized society in the world. A B.A. is required for jobs that by no stretch of imagination need two years full time training, let alone four.”

Throughout their paper, the authors repeatedly state that increasing percentages of the jobs in various fields will “require” college education. For example, on p.37 we read that in the transportation and material moving industry, in the coming decade “About one-third of these jobs will require some college or more….” Does that mean that a third of the jobs involved in transportation and moving will be too difficult for   high school graduates? Or does it mean instead that credentialism will have penetrated far enough that they won’t be considered for jobs in the industry without first getting a college degree?

You’ll find no clue in the paper.

Examine the evidence in the paper closely and it shows the credential inflation phenomenon. The data indicate that at least some people who do not have the “required” education for their jobs are nevertheless doing them. 

Consider management occupations –work that involves responsibility for strategic planning and day-to-day policy decisions. Most managers now have college degrees and in the future a great majority will “require” postsecondary education. And yet, the data show that currently 18 percent of the people in this field have only finished high school and 2 percent more dropped out.

How do we explain that? How can people with less formal education than the work supposedly requires actually do the work?

The best explanation is that those individuals were hired before the credential mania started to engulf American business. I know someone like that. He finished high school in the mid-70s and went to work for an insurance company. He has risen to a senior management position, but his company now requires college degrees for positions of less responsibility than his. My friend couldn’t even get an interview for most entry-level positions today. 

Throughout the paper, readers are led to believe that if workers don’t have college education, they aren’t able to adjust to changing skill requirements.  We’re told, for example, “Increases in organizational complexity lead to an ever-increasing bias toward skilled and educated workers, because they need more knowledge and training to handle that complexity” (p.16).

All right, but what reason is there to believe that individuals who haven’t gone to college are unable to learn whatever they need to when they have to deal with increasing organizational complexity? The authors say that in professional service businesses, there is a trend toward “communication and information technologies that allow organizations to connect easily with one another and their customers.” Yes; nothing new there. But is it true that only people with college educations are able to learn to handle those technologies and cope with organizational complexity?

The paper has no evidence to support that, but there is some research to the contrary, indicating that workers with lower educational levels are often pretty adaptable.

Sociology professor Michael Handel, in a 2003 paper entitled “Skills Mismatch in the Labor Market,” (it isn’t available online, but I’ll send a copy to anyone who asks for one) finds that, “The skills workers can develop and for which they are rewarded are partly a function of the jobs employers offer, rather than the intrinsic capacities of individuals acting as a kind of hard constraint.” Handel points to studies such as one where an old factory was modernized. Nearly all of the workers were high school graduates or dropouts, yet they adapted smoothly to the new skill requirements after the modernization.

In other words, you don’t have to be a college graduate to learn new things.

In summary, for all its heft, “Help Wanted” doesn’t come close to making a persuasive case that the economy is changing so dramatically that we must increase the amount of formal education workers have.