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The de-skilling of the job market

The de-skilling of the job market

The young receptionist at my local civic center has a BA degree. Of course, she doesn’t need a BA degree to greet people coming into the building. I am sure she could have handled that job the day she graduated from high school.

I’ll bet most readers know of kids who, like that receptionist, hold jobs for which they are overqualified. The great recession often gets the blame for this situation. The American educational system is a favorite target as well.

But three Canadian economists came to a different conclusion when they looked at the U. S. labor market. In a National Bureau of Economic Research paper, they argue that around the year 2000, the demand for skills associated with higher education began to decline. Meanwhile, the educational system cranked out ever more college degree holders. What then happened was that educated workers “moved down the occupational ladder” and started holding down jobs traditionally handled by the less skilled. As more educated workers have scarfed up these positions, the net effect has been to push less-educated kids out of the workforce altogether.

Rather than blame the usual scapegoats for this situation, the economists think it arose because of a boom-bust employment cycle caused by the IT revolution during the 1990s Internet boom. Back then, their theory goes, there was an increasing demand for cognitive work to build “organizational capital” that would let the economy take advantage of the technological change. Once that buildup ended, however, the economy needed fewer skilled workers to get the same amount of work done.

And that is the situation we still find ourselves in today. If the economists are correct, the only cure for a de-skilled job market is another technological revolution on the same scale as the Internet boom.

The most recent figures from the U. S. Bureau of Labor statistics seem to confirm this grim assessment. Expectations are that the fastest-growing occupations for the next eight years are in health and medicine. The majority of them don’t require a college degree. Personal-care aides, home-health aides, diagnostic medical sonographers, occupational-therapy assistants, and genetic counselors are all hot areas. The picture is the same for occupations expected to account for the most new jobs in the next eight years. Personal-care aides, retail salespeople, and home-health aides top this list. Hopefully, the people who take these jobs will find them personally fulfilling, because the monetary rewards aren’t high. The fastest-growing occupations, measured in number of jobs created, have a median salary of just $30,000.

The irony is that while college degree holders may sign on for jobs like these due to a lack of better prospects, many skilled positions in manufacturing plants stand vacant. I have to think large numbers of four-year degree holders would find these industrial gigs more engaging than home-health care, or at least less stressful. A recent survey by CareerBuilder found health-care providers have higher stress levels than employees of any other industry.

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