Category Mismatches, Part Number B

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So I’m spending part of my Sunday morning reading the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce 2016 whitepaper called America’s Divided Recovery: College Haves and Have-Nots. I’m weird that way. And I’m trying not to be surprised at some circular logic.

Based on the education level of incumbents, this report designates the 23 major occupation groups into three categories (see Table 3.1). High-skill occupations are those for which 50 percent or more of workers have a Bachelor’s degree or higher. Middle-skill occupations are those for which 50 percent to 75 percent of workers have at least some postsecondary education. Low-skill occupations are those for which at least 50 percent have no education beyond high school. (p.17)

First off, the use of the term “skill” has almost nothing to do with educational attainment. When I was a child in a blue-collar city, “skilled labor” meant machinists, pipefitters, boilermen, masons, welding leads, electricians… any trade that required extensive experience, and in which the tradesmen exercised significant judgment in responding to conditions. “Unskilled labor” were assistants, basically, the guys who carried and staged the work for the skilled guys to do. My dad was a machinist, making individual metal parts down to a tolerance of a ten-thousandth of an inch, and he left school after seventh grade. So the interpretation of “high-skill occupations” as those which have college grads working in them is just… well, it’s just wrong. I mean, the authors of this study work at Georgetown and I don’t, I get that, but they’re wrong.

Also, look at the precise definition…

High-skill occupations are those for which 50 percent or more of workers have a Bachelor’s degree or higher

Not occupations for which college prepares you. Not occupations that require the particular traits that college has to offer. But merely those that are mostly held by college grads. So if 100% of all American adults miraculously held bachelor’s degrees, 100% of all American jobs would by this definition become “high-skill.” The Uber drivers, the dishwashers, the lawnmowers, all high-skill.

Remarkably, it gets worse.

For those with a high school diploma or less, low-skill jobs have been just about the only jobs available. (p.19)

Well, you just TOLD us that you defined it that way! As soon as high school grads have those jobs in numbers, those jobs become defined as low-skill. If we recognized (as we once did, for a generation of intelligent women like my mom with high school diplomas) that being an administrative assistant didn’t require more than high school, it would be called a low-skill job. But in the last office I worked in, all four of the admins in our group had college degrees, two with master’s degrees. The job didn’t change; the pool of available, desperate applicants did.

A college degree is not an economic benefit. The SCARCITY of a college degree is an economic benefit. And now that over 30% of young adults have one, it’s not scarce any more.

Matt Sigelman, chief executive officer of Burning Glass, calls the phenomenon “upcredentialing.” Jobs that once required less than a bachelor’s degree – administrative assistants, computer support specialists and food service managers, for example – are now often marketed as positions that require a college education. The shift in workforce demands comes in part from some jobs that have changed over time – perhaps in requiring more sophisticated skills or credentials – and partly because employers see a bachelor’s degree as a recruitment tool for weeding out undesirable candidates. — Allie Bidwell, “How ‘Upcredentialing’ May Close the Middle-Class Path.” US News and World Report, September 9 2014.

A college degree signals that you’ve read a book in the past few years. That you have enough “grit” (and enough economic security, and enough luck) to have spent four or more years on a single path. That you have a somewhat broader range of conversation than football and last night’s episode of The Voice. It signals that you’re a member of the club, the kind of person we want around. It’s a culture marker, and those in a position to hire generally want people like them on the team. That’s all it means. It doesn’t lift you up; it keeps the others down.

This is true at advanced levels as well. When a few thousand people a year got PhDs, the good academic jobs followed. When a few tens of thousands get them, the system can’t absorb them. Do we want to say that it requires a research doctorate to be a bank manager or a pharmacist or an IT systems administrator? If the numbers are there in the labor pool, why not?

For an industry of such massive national significance, populated by intelligent people, it’s truly remarkable how sloppy we’ve been in describing it all.