Before my son graduated from college, we talked about his job search. I, font of wisdom that I am, told him about what it was like when I was young. He, more attuned to the current world, told me that those days died with the horse an buggy. No longer did people knock on doors, send letters directly to the head of Human Resources or the CEO, and lay out why they wanted, and were qualified for, a job in their enterprise. Those days were gone, indeed.
He showed me the online job sites and the problem he was looking at. He came onto the job market with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from MIT. Not too shabby, right? Wrong. Job after entry level job, they wanted candidates with master’s degrees to do work that barely required a degree at all.
And lest one think he could somehow use his credential from the best engineering school on Mass Ave. to circumvent the requirement, the algos made sure that wasn’t going to happen. If the job listing required a master’s degree, then his resume would never be seen by a human as the first level of vetting was done by computer and his wouldn’t make the cut. He might have been the best damn applicant for the job, but if he couldn’t get his resume in front of a hiring decision maker, he didn’t exist.
In one of the richest nations on earth, the path to prosperity has narrowed significantly in recent decades — especially for those without a college education. More than 62 percent of Americans ages 25 and up do not hold bachelor’s degrees, and the earnings gap between those with a college education and those without one has never been wider. In 2021, the difference between the median earnings of younger workers with bachelor’s degrees and workers of the same age with high-school diplomas only was $22,000 — the largest since the Federal Reserve Bank of New York began tracking earnings in 1990. That’s happening even as the cost of college spirals upward, putting it out of reach for many. This has fueled anxiety, bitterness and a sense of alienation among the millions who see themselves as shut out of an economy that does not value them.
Rarely does the opening paragraph of an editorial say as much and as little as this one. To conflate the earnings gap between high school drop-outs and plumbers, on the one hand, and engineers and grievance studies majors, on the other, is reductio ad absurdum. To add on top that college costs are spiraling upward, as if this was some surprisingly new phenomenon, is laughable.
Yet, there’s no mention of how the primary raison d’etre of universities is no longer education, but diversity, equity and inclusion such that the poor and marginalized can amass student debt just like the middle class even if they lack the skills or abilities necessary to earn a degree, which is itself an outmoded concept since no one flunks out anymore as that would make them sad.
And yet, the New York Times has a point.
With an executive order issued on Jan. 18, his first full day as governor, Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania used one of them: He eliminated the requirement of a four-year college degree for the vast majority of jobs in the state government, a change similar to one that Maryland and Utah made last year. This demonstrates both good policy and good leadership, representing a concrete change in hiring philosophy that stops reducing people to a credential and conveys that everyone — college-educated or not — has experience and worth that employers should consider. It is a step — and a mind-set — that other leaders should consider as well.
Key here, although unmentioned by the Times, is that Shapiro eliminated the “requirement,” meaning that it may still be desired, and may still be the distinction between getting a job or not, but it will not preclude the possibility. There are a great many state government jobs that require no specialized education. Lieutenant governor, for instance.
But the missing piece to the puzzle is whether a job requires specialized education, or whether it’s just knee-jerk “edumacation is good” and there are plenty of unemployed people with master’s degrees sitting around out there looking for work that we can use that credential as the cutoff in vetting the thousand resumes that are submitted via a website. What about cops, where college degrees were not meant to vet job skills, but to eliminate high school brutes from being trusted with a gun?
The decision was driven in part by the realities of a tight labor market. Unemployment in Pennsylvania is 3.9 percent — close to the national average of 3.5 percent — and lower than it was before the pandemic. Public and private employers have been struggling to find qualified applicants, prompting a re-evaluation of hiring criteria. As Mr. Shapiro’s order notes, “In the modern labor market, applicants gain knowledge, skills and abilities through a variety of means, including apprenticeships, on-the-job training, military training and trade schools.”
Is unemployment really that low? A couple years ago, so many people were unemployed that the government had to send out checks to keep them alive. But unemployment is a funny thing. Most of its movement is at the bottom of the spectrum, a warehouse job here, a barista there. There has been no mass demand for chief financial officers. And layoffs at Google and Facebook have caused the bottom to fall out of high paying computer science jobs.
Sure, there are skills learned along the way, outside college that make a person capable of doing a job that previously required a degree without good reason. And in many instances, the person who learned leadership on the battlefield is going to make a far better manager than the snot-nosed activist from Vassar. But this is one piece of a highly dysfunctional puzzle that addresses one problem while ignoring a hundred others. And when the algo trashes the applications of a thousand otherwise decent applicants without degrees because there’s no other way to vet applicants at scale, who will be blamed for the failure?