Ranks of workers lacking a college degree shrink

Tiffany Hsu
Los Angeles Times

Landing a job that leads to a middle-class living may be getting harder for the two-thirds of American workers who aren’t college graduates, as more employers demand bachelor’s degrees from applicants, according to a new report.

The higher threshold is impeding job seekers looking for positions that haven’t historically required a bachelor’s degree, according to Boston labor analytics firm Burning Glass Technologies.

Fewer than 20 percent of employed executive secretaries and executive assistants have bachelor’s degree, but now 65 percent of postings for such roles require a degree. The occupational groups with the largest disparities are management, office and administrative services and business and financial operations.

Researchers, working with millions of job postings aggregated from more than 40,000 websites as well as government data, also determined that so-called credential inflation often drags out the time it takes for employers to fill open spots.

Construction supervisor positions that don’t require a bachelor’s degree take 28 days to fill on average, compared to 61 days for positions that do.

Over time, as more workers retire, many positions could come increasingly difficult to staff, according to researchers.

“Especially if these are production jobs, involved in key operation activities of a company, if they take extra time to fill, that’s a significant problem,” said Burning Glass Chief Executive Matt Sigelman. “Both rising costs and the inability to get talent could make America less competitive over time.”

Some occupations — such as registered nurses and drafters — now require a higher skill level and technological aptitude than they once did, which likely explains the surge in demand from employers for college graduates.

But some employers may be requesting bachelor’s degrees as a way to filter through candidates, not because the talents developed in college would help on the job.

Nearly half of IT help desk jobs now want a graduate, even though the skills required are the same as those requested by employers who are less picky about academic credentials.

“The open question is whether employers are requiring a college degree because those job seekers bring something that lower levels of credentials don’t, or whether it was a rule-of-thumb filter that someone put in along the way,” Sigelman said. “Is it a conscious decision or something that’s just sort of happened?”

Jobs in healthcare and engineering fields, which have established licensing or accreditation processes, are more immune to credential inflation.