The press often features anecdotes about people with college degrees who are working in jobs with much lower educational requirements. These anecdotes often are used to illustrate the hard times that have befallen college graduates since the Great Recession. I thought it would be interesting to look at labor market statistics and see whether or not these anecdotes indicate an actual trend.
For my analysis, I consulted the figures that the Department of Labor reports for the educational attainment of incumbents in various occupations. These figures are ultimately derived from the Current Population Survey and represent both part-time and full-time workers. I compared the figures reported for 2008 and 2012 to get an idea of the impact of the recession.
I found that for all workers in all occupations, the number of incumbents who had some college education or a degree, as opposed to a high school diploma or less, increased by 3 percent between 2008 and 2012. Understand that this 3 percent represents the total of people in five categories of attainment, ranging from “some college, no degree” to “doctorate or professional degree.” For any one category, the increase was 1 percent or less.
Overall, this small increase in workers with college under their belts is not a major trend. Rather than reflect increasing entry requirements and stiffer competition for jobs, it may result from increases in the share of working-age people with college experience. The retirements and job losses of leading-edge baby boomers are helping to increase this share. To be sure, it is possible that the 3 percent increase may be so small because many college-educated people are staying out of the workforce until jobs suited to their level of education become available. But that explanation still gives the lie to the notion that there are growing tends of thousands of baristas, shipping clerks, and carpenter’s helpers who hold bachelor’s degrees.
Now, let’s turn from the workforce as a whole and consider some particular occupations that do show a significant uptick in the percentage of workers with college education. Here are some that stand out.
Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists. Between 2008 and 2012, the percentage of those with some college increased by 10.7 percent, and the percentage of those with a bachelor’s degree by 20.7 percent. The BLS considers a bachelor’s degree the appropriate preparation for this occupation, but clearly this requirement is being enforced more in recent years than it used to be. The workforce for the occupation actually shrank over this time period—by 12.3 percent, compared to 3.7 percent shrinkage for the workforce in all occupations—and the BLS considers “heavy workloads and high job-related stress” to be characteristics of the work, probably contributing to turnover. This shrinkage and turnover help to explain why the educational makeup of the workers could change so greatly in only four years.
Brokerage Clerks. The percentage of those with some college increased by 6.5 percent, and the percentage of those with a bachelor’s degree by 16.2 percent. Unlike the previous occupation, this one is considered to require only a high school diploma or its equivalent, plus moderate-term on-the-job training. However, this is the highest-paying of all the kinds of financial clerks, with median annual earnings of $42,440, compared to $35,310 for loan interviewers and clerks and $24,610 for gaming cage workers. Perhaps more important, some workers may enter this occupation (as opposed to other kinds of clerical jobs) as a pathway to employment as Securities, Commodities, and Financial Services Sales Agents. In addition, those incumbents with some college may have been better able to survive the layoffs that occurred as this occupation shrank by 9.0 percent over the 2008–2012 time period.
Model Makers, Metal and Plastic and Patternmakers, Metal and Plastic. (The BLS does not offer separate figures for these two kinds of metal and plastic machine workers.) The percentage of those with some college increased by 15.5 percent. Although the percentage of those with a bachelor’s degree increased by only 8.0 percent, that is still an impressive figure for an occupation that is considered to require only a high school diploma or its equivalent, plus moderate-term on-the-job training. But here again, as in the preceding occupation, one contributing factor may be the high pay that this occupation commands. These workers average $22.04 (Model Makers) and $20.40 (Patternmakers) per hour. Among other metal and plastic machine workers, the only ones who earn more are Computer Numerically Controlled Machine Tool Programmers, Metal and Plastic ($22.08). Molding, Coremaking, and Casting Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders, Metal and Plastic, average only $13.77. In addition, the offshoring of manufacturing has drastically shrunk this occupation—by 37.6 percent over the 2008–2012 time period. Those workers who have survived the layoffs are likely to be the highly skilled—and therefore highly schooled—workers who can operate computerized equipment.
Medical Transcriptionists. The percentage of those with some college increased by 14.7 percent, although the percentage of those with a bachelor’s degree increased by only 4.1 percent. Unlike the two preceding occupations, this one is considered to require postsecondary training, which is offered by many vocational schools, community colleges, and distance-learning programs. Although just above one-third of the workers had no education beyond high school in 2008, that noncollege share has decreased partly because the work has become more complex, partly because the workforce has shrunk by 19.9 percent, and partly because—unlike so many occupations requiring less than a bachelor’s—the outlook is reasonably good. The workforce is projected to expand by 7.6 percent between 2012 and 2022, which is about the average for all occupations.
Parking Lot Attendants. If I had to cite one example that fits the stereotype of college-educated workers holding a job that requires much less education, it would be this one. But it’s noteworthy that while the percentage of workers with college experience increased by 8.8 percent, the percentage with a bachelor’s actually decreased by 2.1 percent. This occupation does not pay particularly well compared to others with similar skills, the technical skill level is not increasing, nor did it shrink in size (5.7 percent) nearly as much as the preceding occupations. The outlook—7.3 percent projected growth—is comparable to that of Medical Transcriptionists, but this is a high-turnover occupation where few workers stay for long. If I had to hazard a guess for the increase in the number of workers with some college, I would say those who persist in it (and therefore drive up their representation among the rapidly turning-over workers) are those under financial pressure to pay off college loans. The jobs also are concentrated in cities, where the educational level of available workers tends to be higher. But these are only guesses.