How many jobs really require college?

It is the conventional wisdom in some circles that we need to send even more people to college. As Bill Gates wrote, “America is facing a shortage of college graduates…By 2025, two thirds of all jobs in the US will require education beyond high school.”

I am very skeptical of this point of view. In a previous post, I argued that many professional jobs (architect, manager, lawyer) have no natural need to require three to seven years of tertiary schooling. Rather, the strict requirements are due to credentialing laws that restrict entry into the profession and prop up wages.

For this post, I decided to go through a master spreadsheet of employment in the United States and make my own assessment of what percent of jobs truly require college. I sorted each occupation in one of the following buckets:

  1. Grade School or Less Needed – Beyond reading, writing and basic math, no education is needed for this job. Any job specific training takes less than six months. Examples: truck driver, cook, massage therapist, hair stylist, or orderly.
  2. Trade Training needed – This job requires grade school plus one to four years of job specific training. This training could come via vocational school, community college, or apprenticeship. Examples: plumber, carpenter, social worker, auto mechanic, musician, machinist, x-ray technician, or vocational nurse.
  3. General Secondary Education Helpful These are white-collar, leadership or professional jobs, that benefit from the classic general high school education. The classic high school education covers: writing well, a survey of literature and history, logic, rhetoric, general science, and math sufficient to do bookkeeping, etc. The job may also require up to two years of job specific training, which could be taught at a community college, trade school, online classes, or during an apprenticeship. Examples include: financial adviser, executive, teacher, or a marketing manager.
  4. Tertiary Study Necessary. Beyond the classic secondary education, these professions require one to three years of specialized study and practice before a person can be profitably employed at an entry level. But, this study does not need to be done at school. The study could be self-directed and certified by exams. Or a young trainee could work part-time at an office and self-study part time. Examples of this are: computer programming, architect, lawyer, or accountant. The traditional path into law used to be via “reading law” in the offices of an existing lawyer. Once upon a time, architects started working as teenagers as entry-level drafters. Only in modern times have the laws been changed to require the study to occur in school, rather than in the workplace.
  5. Tertiary School Necessary. These professions require years of supervised training that cannot occur on the job. The prime example of this is being doctor. A trainee must spend time dissecting cadavers and doing labs before they can be employed in treating real patients.

I categorized the jobs based on my own subjective assessment, not based on what HR departments and laws require. If you think I am off, here is the spreadsheet with my work. Create your own copy, make your own changes, and share it in the comments section. Explain why you think a given job really requires more or less education.

Here is table with my results , compared to what the actual attendance rates are:

There you have it – according to my own subjective categorizations, I am right, and Bill Gates is wrong :-) We have way too much schooling, not too little. If someone has Bill Gate’s email address, please send him this post, link him to the occupation spreadsheet, and tell him he is completely crazy. There is no plausible way that 60% of jobs will innately require a degree in ten years. If 60% of jobs require a college degree on paper, that requirement will be entirely artificial (due to credentialing laws and competitive signaling spiral/degree inflation – see for example DC’s new regulation that childcare workers must have college degrees).

The most surprising thing I noticed was how many jobs require almost no specialized study or training. Even in contrarian, anti-college intellectual circles, it is popular to say we need more vocational education and apprenticeships. But skilled trades are only around 15% of jobs. The majority of jobs require no special training. They are jobs like cashier, driver, orderly, real estate agent, customer service agent, store clerk, house painter, or laborer.

Less than 15% of jobs can be plausibly said to need more study than the classic high school education. And a only a portion of those jobs require that the tertiary come via formal schooling, as opposed to self-study.

There is the argument that college is where people grapple with new ideas and “learn how to think” – it is not the direct skills that matter, but rather, college provides an intellectual base that is useful in all sorts of jobs.

I think this argument fails in four ways:

  1. People confuse cause and effect. College graduates are more likely to be smart and thoughtful, but college did not make them this way – it was a requirement for getting in to college in the first place. 2.. College actually teaching people how to think is increasingly rare. Only a small percentage of students actually read the classics, get exposed to a variety of ideas, or are actually challenged to think in section or seminar. And more and more, college has become an environment hostile to free inquiry. Even fifteen years ago at an Ivy League school I did not like to say things too far outside the zeitgeist in section, because it just wasn’t worth the risk of making someone in class angry. And I hear the problem is even worse now.
  2. “Learning how to think” is what grade school and high school should be for. The problem is that we started sending everyone to high school, and so we watered down the high school curriculum. Now we are sending more and more youth to college, and watering down the college curriculum…
  3. Most people won’t have a knowledge worker career path in which extensive training in learning how to think is useful. Nor do they have the natural aptitude for such a career path.

(I wrote more about the “learn how to think” argument in my previous piece)

Want “good” jobs? Subsidize wages directly

The a common assumption is that since college educated professionals make good wages, if we want everyone to have a “good job”, we need to send everyone to college.

This is obviously fallacious. How can everyone be an engineer or a lawyer or other professional? Are we to have no truck drivers and HVAC installers? How is that possible?

Even if software developers could invent robotics to replace HVAC installers and truck drivers, that would not result in employing 100 million software developers. There would still only be a few million software developers while everyone else would need to scramble for an alternative job.

When more people are pushed into college, it rarely expands the supply of jobs. Rather, wages for that profession get driven down and the marginal students end up unable to break into the field. Being a lawyer was once an attractive career path. But far too many students went to law school, so for all but the top students wages cratered and jobs became scarce. Similarly, too many students went to grad school, and the wages and job prospects for young post-grads became dire.

Across the board, the marginal college graduate increasingly find their degrees unwanted and useless. Nobody needs another international relations major from Southern Ohio State College. He graduates and ends up tending bar or doing equipment sales or doing one of a million other jobs that he could have done without a degree. We also see this in other countries – such as Egypt – where the push to educate young adults far outstripped the economy’s ability to provide professional jobs.

Sending more people to college does not fundamentally alter the number of jobs and their salaries. If we want the working class to be better off, there are only two possibilities: One, subsidize the wages directly. I wrote previously about how this could be done. Two, change the culture to make such jobs higher status. A job as a claims adjuster or marketing manager is neither more noble or nor psychologically superior than a job as a truck driver or line cook. It is silly that we consider one a “good job” while the other is a “dead-end” job. It used to be pop culture celebrated the ordinary working-class job – but during the second half of the 20th century this shifted, and a college education became the sole track to having status.

The Real Skills Deficit

Consider the goods and services that make up a good and comfortable life: high-tech gizmos, gas heating, indoor plumbing, a well-built home, access to a skilled doctor, good restaurants, good beer, parks, well-built infrastructure, a stroll down a street with pretty buildings, etc. If you look at the production process for those goods and services, only a small percent of the workers involved need a college degree. And most degrees granted do not improve the production process – how does granting millions of degrees in “business”, “communications” or “social science” lead to more and better of these products? It doesn’t. And in fact, by channeling so many people into the college pipeline, we have lost out on the skills that did make for the good life. We have lost the artisans that once created beautiful streetscapes and ornate architectural detailing. We have less money to spend on infrastructure. We have more debt, and more stress.

Furthermore, even in the engineering fields, much of the know-how exists exclusively inside the productive organization – not inside the textbooks. Every engineer, when getting a job, has a big adjustment period as they learn how things are actually done. They learn why the schoolbook version was simplified or out-dated, and they learn the real techniques and tricks and tooling that they actually need to know to make things work.

In the past few decades, America has become more educated in terms of degrees. But in reality, people like my dad were training Chinese engineers to replace them, as the boomers retired and the high-tech job moved overseas. And now Forbes tells us that the Kindle cannot be made in America, because the essential technological production no longer exists here. According to policy wonks – who measure skills and education by number of years people spend sitting in chair – we have become more educated. But if you look at the actual knowledge needed to build high-tech goods, the issue is a lot more murky.

What should a sane education system look like?

If Mr. Gates were to put me in charge of his policy recommendation operation, here are some fixes I would push for:

  • Separate schooling from credentialing. All jobs that currently require a degree, should instead require a knowledge test. The employer should not care how the knowledge was obtained, just that the applicant has the knowledge. Perhaps even go so far as to make it illegal to ask for college degree information, just as it is illegal to ask for race or sex. You can ask for the knowledge but the not the degree, as asking for the degree is discriminatory against people who could not afford the time or money for college.
  • Create a set of free, online high school and college degree programs that any American could enroll in, and pursue at their own pace. Free college for everyone! Since the courses are online, the cost to the government could be quite small.
  • At age 13, give everyone a $100k education voucher. They can spend it on trade school, high school, or professional school. If they do not spend the voucher by age 30, they can put it directly in a retirement account or use it to pay down a mortgage. If someone does not have the natural aptitude to take advantage of schooling, wouldn’t it make more sense to just give them $100k, rather than spend waste the money on a high school or college program that is not useful to them? And if someone can be efficient and teach themselves out of books, why not let them keep some of the money that would have been spent on their schooling?
  • Legalize and normalize apprenticeship contracts. Even better – require all profitable companies to take on 1 apprentice for every 7 employees. Once a person finishes grade school, high school, or professional school, they apply directly for one of these apprenticeships. An apprenticeship is often superior to votech school, because 1) votech schools have to replicate expensive equipment that already exists anyways on the job site and 2 ) in an apprenticeship, you learn from actual practitioners, not from teachers who may have been out of the field for a while. The first job is always the hardest, and mandatory apprenticeships could directly solve the problem colleges pretend to solve – that of integrating the next generation into the workforce.

If these reforms were passed, the average professional would be earning money at an earlier age and with less debt. The average laborer would be given a hand-up in life, to the tune of $100k. Financial stress across the population would be immensely reduced.

But instead, we keep funneling more and more people to more and more years of expensive schooling, to the greater detriment of all.