Career Pathways Narrowing for Workers Without Bachelor’s Degree

HR & Safety

Report on ‘upcredentialing’ suggests trend may be making some jobs harder to fill

An increasing number of job seekers face being shut out of occupations that sustained a middle-class lifestyle by employers’ rising demand for a bachelor’s degree. Credential inflation is affecting a wide range of jobs from executive assistants to construction supervisors and has serious implications both for workers not seeking a college degree and for employers struggling to fill jobs.

A groundbreaking jobs report, released in September by Boston-based labor analytics firm Burning Glass Technologies, documents the changing face of the American workforce. “Moving the Goalposts: How Demand for a Bachelor’s Degree Is Reshaping the Workforce” analyzes the extent of the phenomenon of “upcredentialing” by measuring the credentials gap: the difference between the educational attainment of currently employed workers and the educational attainment employers are demanding for new hires.

“Employers appear to be using a bachelor’s degree as a proxy for higher skill levels, a rule-of-thumb screen for hiring,” said Matt Sigelman, CEO of Burning Glass Technologies. “For an individual employer, that may be an understandable step. When everybody does it, however, this becomes a trend that could shut millions of Americans out of middle-skill, middle-class jobs.”

Key findings include:

  • The shift has been dramatic for some of the occupations historically dominated by workers without a college degree. For example, 65% of postings for executive secretaries and executive assistants now call for bachelor’s degrees, although only 19% of those currently employed in these roles have B.A’s.
  • In some roles, employers prefer bachelor’s credentials even when that makes the position harder to fill. For example, construction supervisor positions that require a B.A. take 61 days to fill on average, compared to 28 days for postings that don’t require a bachelor’s degree.
  • In some cases, jobs require more education because the work is becoming more complex. Registered nurses and drafters are two occupations where the demand for a bachelor’s degree is on the rise, but in both cases job postings indicate employers have higher expectations for the level of skill workers bring with them.
  • In other cases, the skill sets required in ads seeking a bachelor’s degree are identical to those that don’t. Nearly half of all IT helpdesk jobs now request a bachelor’s degree even though the skills employers request are identical for B.A. and sub-B.A. positions. This suggests that employers may be relying on a B.A. as a broad recruitment filter that may or may not correspond to specific capabilities needed to do the job.
  • The positions least affected by this trend are jobs such as healthcare and engineering technicians that have established licensing or certification standards or jobs with measurable skill standards that reduce the need for employers to look at a college degree as a proxy for capability.

Sigelman added, “Two-thirds of the American workforce lacks a bachelor’s degree. This growing divergence between the degrees employers now require and the credentials the workforce holds suggests that the job market is becoming less efficient. Using a bachelor’s degree as a hiring screen is making some jobs harder to fill, and doesn’t seem to represent real market needs.”

Burning Glass collected data on education credentials currently in demand from its analysis of millions of job postings gathered from more than 40,000 websites worldwide. Data on the existing workforce’s educational credentials comes from the 2011 and 2012 American Community Survey.

For more findings and a detailed analysis on upcredentialing, read the full report.

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