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You Can Hire a Grad for That Low-Skill Job, But Should You?
 

New research shows that more and more education is required for less skilled jobs, with pernicious consequences for society.

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A few weeks ago my colleague Susanne Lucas asked business owners to consider if that job they were looking to fill truly requires a college degree.

"Why are you looking for an administrative assistant among college graduates? This is a challenging role that is best filled by someone who wants that role. That is, someone who is not just biding time while waiting for an analyst spot to open up, or who is trying to earn money before gong to law school," she argues. From a HR perspective, she feels, slapping "degree required" on every job description is often a lousy idea, but does it also cause wider societal harm?

That's what a couple of recent studies suggest. The first is a survey from CareerBuilder that simply verifies the trend Lucas discusses. It found that employers are indeed requiring degrees for positions they once filled with high school grads.

Nearly one-in-five employers told CareerBuilder that they have increased their educational requirements for jobs over the last five years, while about a third of hiring managers said they are hiring more employees with college degrees for positions that were historically held by high school graduates.

From the perspective of employers this can appear to be a good thing. Many respondents (64 percent in fact) claim the quality of work has improved as grads fill lower-skilled roles, but not everyone is excited about the increasing insistence that everyone from the receptionist on up complete four years of college.

Over on The Daily Beast Megan McArdle reports on new research that suggests employers are involved in an educations arms race that is pushing students to get more and more education to compete for jobs that really don't require it and, by extension, leaving lower-skilled workers out of a job entirely.

"A new paper from Paul Beaudry, David Green, and Benjamin Sand argues that… skilled workers with higher degrees are increasingly ending up in lower-skilled jobs that don't really require a degree--and in the process, they're pushing unskilled workers out of the labor force altogether," she writes.

The explanation for this phenomenon is probably not degree-mad business owners but technology, which has made it easier to do many kinds of analytical work, reducing the number of skilled roles, the study authors speculate. "We no longer want or need so many skilled workers doing non-routine tasks with a big analytical component. The workers who can't get those jobs are taking less skilled ones. The lowest-skilled workers are dropping out entirely, many of them probably ending up on disability," McArdle writes.  

If they study authors are right, "this is ferociously depressing news," she grimly declares. For young people and their parents the lesson may be to think long and hard before they pony up huge sums for a degree, but what's the lesson for employers? 

Do you agree with Lucas that business owners should be aware that there's an education arms race on and not "give into the trap of only hiring people with certain degrees," or do you feel, like many of the CareerBuilder respondents, that given the realities of the job market you should take your pick of over-credentialed candidates? 

Last updated: Apr 1, 2013

JESSICA STILLMAN is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.
@EntryLevelRebel




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