By Kevin J. Fleming
There is a widespread belief that the job market is just waiting for hordes of ambitious young graduates to slide into high-paying jobs. They just need to go to college, right?
The data tells a different story.
First, let’s look at whether a college degree always equates to higher income. Proponents of this theory rely on averages, which have fueled a “college for all” philosophy where educators and parents encourage going to a university—any university, to major in anything—in pursuit of social mobility and financial prosperity. This belief has increased college and university enrollment to an all-time high. Two out of three high schoolers will enter college.
But fewer graduate. Only a quarter of those who enroll, in fact. Some lose interest, others are juggling too much, and many feel like they went to the wrong institution. Sixty-two percent of students report feeling disengaged because they don’t see the connection between their coursework and their future career.
Our educational system is well intentioned, but misaligned. The pendulum has swung too far toward college at any cost, and away from skill attainment. And that shift has diminished our workforce. We need to ask, “What knowledge and skills do you need to be employable and to contribute to your community?” instead of, “Where are you going to college?”
This misalignment is not just bad for the economy—it harms learners. College graduates take positions that do not require the education they have, and often with debt they cannot afford. In fact, according to Census Bureau statistics, this misalignment causes half of university graduates to be underemployed upon graduation. One-third are still underemployed well into their thirties.
Success today depends on aligning a student’s academics with their skills and available job opportunities. We’re not doing that. My research shows employers have trouble finding applicants with strong technical skills, as well as problem solving skills, applied math skills, and basic technical training.
Having hands-on skills and perfecting what you’re good at can be more valuable in today’s economy than getting a degree simply to get one. In fact, when hiring, business leaders say a candidate’s knowledge and applied skills in a specific field are more important factors than where the candidate went to school or their college major.
In 1960, 20 percent of U.S. jobs required a four-year degree or higher. Another 20 percent were technical jobs requiring skilled training, and 60 percent were classified as unskilled. Even today, Georgetown University predicts only 33 percent of all jobs will require a four-year degree or more in the future. The overwhelming majority will be highly skilled jobs requiring professional and technical training at the credential or associates degree level.
The current and future predicted ratio of jobs in our economy is 1:2:7. For every occupation that requires a master’s degree or more, two jobs require a university degree, and more than half a dozen require a one-year certificate or two-year degree.
Our “college for all” mantra must be significantly broadened to, “a post-high school credential for all.”
Too many learners leave school without essential skills, setting up our children for failure, and costing them, and taxpayers, millions. All while the labor market is desperate for highly trained, skilled technicians. One of the essential purposes of education should be to help students develop the knowledge, curiosity, and skills needed to search for and obtain work they find satisfying in an ever-changing world. The quest should be to align one’s personality, passions, and purpose with a profession. Choosing between higher education or career preparation is a false choice. It’s possible—and increasingly necessary—to achieve both.
So, what should students do?
Again, averages are the enemy. Let’s say a student is considering a career as either an electrician or a business manager. The average annual income for electricians is $56,900, about half of the $109,700 average wage for management occupations. At first glance it looks as if getting a bachelor’s degree in business is a no-brainer, but adding skills and ability into the picture is important. What if that student has the potential to become an excellent electrician, but isn’t great at management? Then they should look at projected incomes toward the bottom of the pay scale for managers and toward the top for electricians. Master electricians make more than $99,000, far higher than a manager near the bottom of the pay scale at $51,600.
This is just one example, but the concept is true throughout all industries. Everyone has unique skills, talents, and gifts. That’s where the focus should be.
Our world has changed, and the university degree is no longer the guaranteed path toward financial success. Even if a student earns one, that education alone may not be enough to secure meaningful and satisfying work. In today’s economy, employers want to know what you can do, and what you can do well. And new and emerging occupations in every industry require a combination of academic knowledge and technical ability. One without the other is insufficient.
To ultimately secure a competitive advantage, students need a rigorous general education combined with applied technical skills, industry-recognized certifications, life skills, and specific preparation for employment. The new secret to success is to create ample opportunities to explore and hone one’s skills and choose an initial career aligned with who you are. Alignment will help ensure a position at the top of each pay scale throughout one’s journey.
For the sake of our students, our families, and our country, we can’t afford to get this wrong any longer. The time has come to redefine the goal for learners. They need a relevant education, not just a degree.
Dr. Kevin J. Fleming is an educator, speaker, CEO of Catapult, and author. He is the producer of multiple, viral animation videos including Success in the New Economy, author of the educational bestseller, (Re)Defining the Goal, and currently Vice President of Planning & Development at Norco College in Southern California.
This viewpoint is part of an ongoing series, Driving Transformation. In this series, we amplify the voices of a diverse group of scholars, nonprofit leaders, and advocates who offer unique perspectives on the intersection of work and learning.