Companies hiring for what would traditionally be classified as middle-skill positions (those that economists define as requiring a high-school diploma but not a bachelor’s degree, such as bookkeeping or a secretary) today often say they require candidates to have a bachelor’s degree. They see such degrees as an indication of whether an applicant has a range of skills they’re looking for, like the ability to communicate effectively or program computers. In 2015, almost 70 percent of job postings for production supervisors (people who oversee the production operations in manufacturing or other industrial environments), for example, asked for a bachelor’s degree even though only 16 percent of the workers already employed in that occupation had one, according to a report by the Harvard Business School. The report estimates that more than 6 million jobs——interestingly, the same number as those that are vacant— are at risk of degree inflation.
This phenomenon isn’t limited to a small sphere of the American workforce: The 15 occupations experiencing the greatest degree inflation, according to the report, span virtually every major industry.
But adults who participated in apprenticeship programs instead of college, for instance, can do certain jobs, such as billing and customer service, just as effectively as graduates with bachelor’s degrees, according to a separate 2017 report by the Harvard Business School, this one co-authored with the labor-market analytics firm Burning Glass Technologies. Sometimes apprentices can do those jobs even more effectively than college graduates. Only 42 percent of employers feel that graduates are adequately prepared for the job market, according to a 2013 report by the McKinsey Center for Government.
This suggests that, in focusing their hiring efforts only on college graduates, many employers are overlooking pools of qualified applicants—a habit that’s mutually detrimental in that it can both undermine the company’s economic health and deprive promising Americans of opportunities in which they’d otherwise thrive. After all, the vast majority of high-achieving, low-income students don’t apply to any selective college or university, according to analyses by Stanford University researchers. And just 14 percent of low-income students receive a bachelor’s degree within eight years of completing high school, which is roughly half the rate of their middle-income peers.
These discrepancies aren’t the result of an imbalance in ability but rather an imbalance in access. And that ought to call into question companies’ ever-growing reliance on a bachelor’s degree as a barometer of one’s eligibility for a given job. Instead of considering whether a candidate has a four-year degree, the employer should be asking, “who can do this job today and continue learning to become a productive member of the team?” said Beth Cobert, the CEO of Skillful. Skillful, a recently launched Colorado-based organization, aims to change the way companies hire by working with employers, job seekers, educators, coaches, and the government, among others, to shift their focus during the job-screening process from degrees to skills. The goal is to have employers look at applicants’ competencies—say, their ability to communicate effectively with customers and compile an Excel spreadsheet—rather than just their degrees when screening candidates.