A WSJ article suggests that if the corporations which have been proclaiming their support for black communities really want to make a difference, they should change their hiring and management practices to focus on job skills, rather than continuing to privilege college degrees. They say that “degree inflation” is rampant: as an example, 67% of postings for new production supervisors in 2015 included college-degree requirements, though only 16% of existing production supervisors had bachelor’s degrees. (See interesting NBER paper here.)
Indeed, I’m not very comfortable with the term ‘middle skill’ which has been adopted for jobs that typically require a technical training program of some sort but do not require a college degree. Is someone with an undergraduate sociology degree really necessarily more skilled than a CNC machinist? The suggestion that someone with a college degree is always higher-skilled than someone without a degree has unpleasant implications of a class-bound society. The authors of the NBER paper suggest an alternative term: STARs…Skilled Through Alternative Routes, and they also suggest that many “technology” jobs shouldn’t really require a college degree. They note that:
While some of these new occupations (e.g., data scientist) may require skills (e.g., statistical methods) which are typically acquired in advanced formal education, a large number (e.g., application developers and administrators for enterprise Software-as-a-Service platforms such as Salesforce, Workday, or ServiceNow) are learned not in formal education, but mostly on-the-job or in credentialed skill training designed by the SaaS companies themselves. While estimating STARs’ potential to fill skilled roles still emerging is beyond the scope of this paper, it would be reasonable to expect that employers’ rational ignorance or deprecation of experienced-based signals of STARs skills for existing jobs may similarly shape.
…they also suggest that there are many cases in which skills developed by an employee in a particular not-well-paid job can actually be of value to an employer in a different and better-paid job, but that the mapping of these skills sets is not generally well-understood by employers.
Back in 1969, Peter Drucker wrote:
The most serious impact of the long years of schooling is, however, the “diploma curtain” between those with degrees and those without. It threatens to cut society in two for the first time in American history…By denying opportunity to those without higher education, we are denying access to contribution and performance to a large number of people of superior ability, intelligence, and capacity to achieve…I expect, within ten years or so, to see a proposal before one of our state legislatures or up for referendum to ban, on applications for employment, all questions related to educational status…I, for one, shall vote for this proposal if I can.
I wouldn’t favor a legal ban on such questions, but I do think public policy needs to encourage of focus on skills rather than on degrees per se, and I’m happy to see that President Trump has signed an executive order requiring Federal agencies to increase the use of skill assessments and interviews with subject matter experts to determine an applicant’s qualifications, rather than simply looking at educational achievements. At least one agency had already made this switch to a certain degree: the FAA, which once required a college degree for aspiring controllers entering its specialized training program, now allows alternatively a combination of three years of progressively responsible work experience or a combination of post-secondary education and work experience that totals three years. And some private employers are putting more emphasis on apprenticeship programs and various kinds of alternative skill demonstration. (See for example the GE Aviation apprenticeship program; lots more North Carolina apprenticeship programs here.)
Working on the lifting of the “diploma curtain” seems particularly appropriate given the growing evidence that many college graduates today don’t really learn all that much during their college years. In any case, if the inappropriate use of college credentials can be reduced, it should offer a significant benefit to overall economic growth and productivity, as well as to many individuals.