Moving the Goalposts: How Demand for a Bachelor’s Degree Is Reshaping the Workforce
June 12, 2015 by Emsi Burning Glass
An increasing number of job seekers face being shut out of middle-skill, middle-class occupations by employers’ rising demand for a bachelor’s degree. This credential inflation, or “upcredentialing” 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.
Employers now require bachelor’s degrees for a wide range of jobs, but the shift has been dramatic for some of the occupations historically dominated by workers without a college degree. The credential gap can amount to 25 percentage points or more for middle skill jobs in some occupational families, like Office and Administrative and Business and Financial Operations. For example, 65% of postings for Executive Secretaries and Executive Assistants now call for a bachelor’s degree. Only 19% of those currently employed in these roles have a B.A.
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 other occupations, such as entry level IT help desk positions, the skill sets indicated in job postings don’t include skills typically taught at the bachelor’s level, and there is little difference in skill requirements for jobs requiring a college degree from those that do not. Yet the preference for a bachelor’s degree has increased. 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.
Jobs resist credential inflation when there are good alternatives for identifying skill proficiency. Many health care and engineering technician jobs, such as Respiratory Therapists, show little sign of upcredentialing. That is likely because those positions are governed by strict licensing or certification standards, well-developed training programs, or by measurable skill standards such that employers do not need to look at a college degree as a proxy for capability.
One implication of this trend is that many middle-skill career pathways are becoming closed off to those without a bachelor’s degree – a group that still comprises nearly two-thirds of the U.S. workforce. Frequently these positions, such as IT help desk technicians, serve as the first step on the career ladder to better jobs, so job seekers without a bachelor’s degree may lose out on future advancement as well as current positions.
This trend could exacerbate the problems employers face as they seek to replace workers amidst an aging workforce. Some of the occupations with the greatest credentials gap have older-than-average workforces, and will have significant turnover as workers retire. Raising credential requirements will make those employees even harder to replace.
In many of those occupations with a growing credentials gap, it is worth examining exactly why employers prefer employees with a college education. In some cases, the skills needed in that occupation have objectively increased, as reflected in upgraded skill requirements as workers use advanced technology or apply more sophisticated analysis and judgment in their jobs. However, in many other cases — particularly those where the substance of the work does not appear to be changing or to be different based on whether or not a B.A. is required — employers may be using the bachelor’s degree as a rough, rule-of-thumb screening system to recruit better workers. In the latter case, greater alignment between K-12 schools, job training programs, and employers might accomplish the same goal with greater precision.
Jobs in fields with strong certification or licensure standards, or with discreet, measurable skill requirements seem to resist this trend. This suggests that developing certifications that better reflect industry needs, together with industry acceptance of these alternative credentials, could reduce pressure on job seekers to pursue a bachelor’s degree and ensure that middle-skill Americans continue to have opportunities for rewarding careers, while continuing to provide employers with access to the talent they need.
About Our Data
Data on educational credentials currently in demand is drawn from Emsi Burning Glass’s database of online job postings. Emsi Burning Glass gathers millions of job openings daily from more than 40,000 websites and then mines the text of each one to analyze each employer’s specific requirements, including location and the particular skills, qualifications, and experience required. Data on the existing workforce’s educational credentials comes from the 2011 and 2012 American Community Survey. Occupations included in this analysis are positions that have traditionally been open to a broad range of job seekers, with or without a bachelor’s degree. Specifically, we define these as roles where between 25% and 75% of job postings call for a B.A.