The Jobs of Tomorrow Require a College Degree – Or Do They?

Making sense of conflicting reports on education level and employment

I have been sorely troubled in recent months by conflicting – even diametrically opposed – reports that claim either that most jobs in the future will require a college degree, or, alternatively, that most jobs will not require a college degree.

Here are two quick examples. A report from October 23 from TheBlaze TV quoted Mike Rowe (of “Dirty Jobs” and many TV commercials for Ford Motor Company) in an interview with Glenn Beck. In the interview, Mr. Rowe belittled the notion of taking on debt to obtain a college degree when there are so many jobs available in the skilled trades. (Just for the record, Mr. Rowe earned a B.A. in communication studies from Towson University.) Summarizing the interview, TheBlaze TV noted, “Of the roughly three million jobs that companies are struggling to fill, Rowe said only 8 to 12 percent require a college degree.”

Contrast that statement with the report Failure to Launch: Structural Shift and the New Lost Generation, published in September by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. “By 2020, 65 percent of jobs will require at least some education or training beyond high school.” (The figure was 28 percent in 1973.) In addition, in 2012 only 53 percent of young adults (ages 26 to 30) with just a high school diploma were employed full-time, in contrast to 70 percent of college graduates.

These reports are further confused by other reports (made famous by Mitt Romney during last year’s presidential campaign) that approximately half of recent college graduates were either unemployed or were working in positions that did not require a college degree.

No wonder the parents of college-age children are scratching their heads! Should parents go into hock to send their kids to college, in an effort to assure them of good jobs and an upper middle class life, or should they save their money, since their kids are doomed to live on society’s margins, regardless of whether or not they obtain a college degree?

I recently read a report that makes sense of these conflicting statements. The report is entitled Dancing with Robots: Human Skills for Computerized Work, and it was published by Third Way. It is far and away the best-written and analyzed report of its type that I have seen.

The report noted that almost 60 years ago, then-President Lyndon Johnson received a memorandum from some of the most prestigious thinkers in America, warning him that computers would replace growing numbers of workers, thereby creating massive unemployment. The warning was premature: 74 million jobs have been added to the American economy in the years since that memorandum was written.

But today the warning looks prescient.

It has become accepted wisdom that the jobs lost during the Great Recession of 2008 are not, for the most part, coming back. The proof of that statement would seem to be reflected in the stubbornly high rates of unemployment that have bedeviled most states (and most European countries) for the past five years.

But we regularly hear reports that employers cannot find qualified workers for the positions they have open.

And every politician running for office, or thinking about it, is quick to recognize that (once again), “It’s the economy, stupid” – and, more specifically, it’s about jobs. People who are out of work, or who are marginally employed, are desperate for a good job, and the politicians are responding by promising to deliver good jobs, in significant numbers, once they are elected.

Dancing with Robots demonstrates that such promises will be very difficult to keep – and the reason is that any task that can be done by a computer or robot will (eventually, if not already) be done by a computer or robot, thereby displacing the human worker that had done the job previously.

Consider just a few examples now well under way. Toll takers are being replaced by electronic billing via windshield-mounted transponders. Bank tellers are being replaced by ATM machines. Supermarket clerks are being replaced by machines that scan bar codes. Desk agents at airports are being replaced by kiosks. Telephone operators are virtually extinct. And any number of manufacturing jobs are now being done by robots.

These are all jobs that are not coming back.

And what do they have in common? They are jobs that are rule-based and repetitive – exactly the kind of tasks at which computers and robots excel.

Further proof of this situation comes from an analysis in the Dancing with Robots report of the percentage of the labor force in specific occupations in 1979, and again in 2009. There has been growth in the number of certain types of low-paying jobs (personal care; food preparation; custodial service; buildings and grounds maintenance) and in high-paying jobs (professions; managerial) – but a very significant hollowing out of jobs that were once the backbone of the middle class (operators and fabricators; craft and repair; office and administrative support), where automation has replaced huge numbers of human workers.

Projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reveal that, over the coming decade, job growth will continue to be concentrated on the two ends of the pay spectrum, with at best modest growth in the middle.

From a skills standpoint, the better paying jobs require individuals who can work with new information and who can solve unstructured problems – skills that will be very difficult to replace using technology. The lesser paying jobs involve routine manual or cognitive tasks, many of which can be done by computers or robots, and there are just not enough jobs left for those who seek that type of employment. As a consequence, employers with those types of jobs can keep wages low, and still expect to find workers.

Another way of expressing the emerging dichotomy in the labor market is to look at changes in compensation over time of workers with a bachelor’s degree contrasted with workers with just a high school diploma. In 1980, weekly wages were 26 percent higher for male college graduates than for male high school graduates. By 2009, the differential had increased to 84 percent. In 2009, the differential for women was 78 percent.

Equally important is the fact that inflation-adjusted weekly earnings for men with just a high school diploma are unchanged since 1970, whereas they have increased by almost 20 percent for college-educated men over that same time period (and all of that increase has occurred since 1990).

The authors of Dancing with Robots conclude that the future of the middle class will depend on workers who possess the capacity for “flexibility – the ability to process and integrate many kinds of information to perform a complex task, [such as] solving problems for which standard operating procedures do not currently exist, and working with new information – acquiring it, making sense of it, communicating it to others.”

The good news is that the acquisition of these particular skills and capacities is precisely the intended outcome of a university education. The bad news is that these skills actually have to be acquired. Merely having obtained a diploma, but without having mastered these skills, will be insufficient.

So to answer the question posed by the title of this blog post, “Most good jobs of tomorrow will require a good college degree.”

And that is why Roger Williams University is so convinced that an undergraduate education that focuses on acquiring strengths in the liberal arts and strengths in one of our professional programs, coupled with the experience that comes from project-based learning, is precisely what our graduates need in order to secure a great job with an even better future.