America: Land of the free, home of the overqualified

Colleges keep pumping out graduates, even though many hold jobs that don't come close to needing a degree.

By Jonathan Berr Apr 16, 2013 1:40PM
Image: Grocery clerk (© Corbis/SuperStock)The outlook for recent college graduates continues to be depressing.

According to data released earlier this year by the Center for College Affordability & Productivity, 48% of employed U.S. college graduates are in jobs that don't require a four-year degree and 37% are employed in positions that require only a high school diploma. The rise in underemployment in this group since 1970 is pretty stark.

More than 15% of taxi drivers and firefighters hold college degrees. In 1970, fewer than 1% of taxi drivers held one, and the figure for firefighters was about 2%. Nearly 25% of all retail salespeople, along with 15% of bank tellers and 5% of janitors are now college graduates, the report says. Back in the 1970s, college graduates with those jobs accounted for less than 5% of the workforce.

Many of these workers in low-paying jobs are going to have a tough time repaying their student loans. According to the Project on Student Debt at the Institute for College Access & Success, students who borrowed money and earned a bachelor's degree in 2011 owed an average of $26,6000 in student debt, up from $25,250 in 2010. Given that college tuition has risen at greater than the rate of inflation for years, that figure will only increase in the coming years.
Unfortunately, a huge mismatch exists between the skills of the American workforce and the jobs that are available. As Edward Luce recently noted in The Financial Times, Germany does a much better job in training its workforce.

"Germany channels roughly half of all high-school students into the vocational education stream from the age of 16. In the US that would be seen as too divisive, even un-American," he writes. "More than 40 per cent of Germans become apprentices. Only 0.3 per cent of the US labour force does so."

Training workers for tomorrow's jobs is easier and cheaper than retraining those whose skills are deficient. The U.S., though, has a lot to do to improve in this area. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the labor "participation rate," the number of people looking for work, is at its lowest level since 1979.

Follow Jonathan Berr on Twitter @jdberr.

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Apr 16, 2013 3:56PM
I have been saying for years that not everyone should go to college. There are plenty of jobs in the trades, plumbing/electrical and such. A good tradesman can make as much or more than someone with a diploma. What did you pay the last time you called a plumber? Everybody wants to sit behind a computer and get paid $100K. Not going to happen. There are thousands of jobs for qualified machinists. Can't fill them because you might get dirty doing the job. I make precision optics. No degree, made $120K last year. Quit pushing everyone into college and padding the pockets of these university stiffs and their political partners.
Apr 16, 2013 5:41PM

Mr. Berr

I am a college educated firefighter.  I decide which life saving medications you will receive without consulting a doctor.  Four minutes after the accident, I get to decide how to handle the mysterious ooze coming from the trailer on the highway.  In addition to chemistry and medicine, I am conversant in residential and commercial construction, including loads, wiring, plumbing and water hydraulics.  The shame is that only 15% of firefighters have been awarded degrees.  Firefighting is much more than fighting fire and it requires a great deal of skill, knowledge and ability. 

Apr 16, 2013 2:52PM
This type of thing is typical in plutocracies. Go to many developing countries where cronyism and corruption are widespread and you'll find lots of well educated people, but no appropriate jobs for them. The United States has become like those places...cronyism and corruption are increasing across the land. 
Apr 16, 2013 5:21PM

Germany does it right and it is unfathomable why we haven't been able to do this, except for our ADHD culture... can't focus on anything for long.  The community college system was supposed to do this and to some extent does, but somehow we don't seem to get it right. 


Germany does a great job on vocational training and apprenticeships, and this also helps them to maintain a well-trained and professional workforce for industries like chemical, machine tools, pharma, etc.... which helps their competitiveness and economic success long-term. 


We just focus on profits... short-term, which is short-cutting our future while the wealthy build mansions in gated communities.  These will become more than gates, eventually they will have to be castle walls.

Apr 16, 2013 3:37PM

"Colleges keep pumping out graduates, even though many hold jobs that don't come close to needing a degree."


That's because 'Education' is a racket taken out of whack and off-track by the No Child Left Behind Act. All we did was let unqualified false elitist degree holders get into key roles, ruin the business and then set the stage for ultimate failure. No business trains anyone or has anyone skilled at training, College doesn't generate skills or knowledge... it's about test-taking. You tell me... why do people NEED HAVE TO spend $100,000 for a piece of paper? Why aren't the General Education classes available as Pay Per View? Add to all of this the excuse for job blockading known as online job posting and you have a perfect scenario for psychopathic controllers and manipulators. Time for change.

Apr 16, 2013 4:27PM
What types of degree's do these folks have?  Lumping all degrees from college into the same boat is not fair.  Obviously someone with a History or Fine Arts degree is probably going to have a harder time finding work in their field than someone with an Accounting degree.  I would like to see an article of facts that breaks it down by major. 
Apr 16, 2013 5:26PM
I think one of the problems is the MAJORS these college grads picked.  Philosophy, medieval studies, art, women's studies, environmental eco-centrism (no, I didn't make that up), some degrees are screaming "You won't get a job with this" but they keep trying regardless. 
Apr 16, 2013 5:48PM
Overqualified? Hardly accurate, while a college degree is helpful in a job search, people have to be willing to do the work. Entry level positions as a Computer Information Systems graduate are there and guess what? Your first year or so could be at the help desk, or being the office gofer. You cannot in your right mind walk in and think "I got a degree, I am not going to field customer calls".  True in some companies you will work right away in your chosen job, but quite often you will not do so right away. Get over yourselves already and face reality.
Apr 16, 2013 5:02PM
we have too many colleges and not enough technical schools. now even the technical schools are trying to get into the college game. they are offering classes that you can transfer to a 4 year school instead of offering classes in AC/HVAC, plumbing, electrical, etc. 
Apr 16, 2013 6:12PM

Read most of the comments here before I posted, and I have to agree.  I went to college and graduated with a B.S. in Geology in 1984.  Moved to east Texas and worked in the oil patch as a Mudlogger/Geologist for 18 months, great return on investment, right???  Came back home and went though various low paying jobs before getting into the Operating Engineers as a crane operator.  Yes, I do get my hands dirty, and I  work in the heat and cold, but my view changes with every job,I get paid a good wage and have a PENSION and benefits.  If any 20 somethings are looking for a career try one of the trades!!!   You just might like it.

Apr 16, 2013 8:19PM

I am a high school mathematics teacher in Tennessee.  Tennessee seems to have this notion that all students are going to go to college.  So to prepare them for college, four years of math if required.  I wish they would get realistic and see that:


1)  Not all students want to go to college

2)  Not all students are mature enough when they leave high school to go and succeed at college

3)  Some students cannot handle college, they simply do not have the ability.  It is all some can do to make it through Algebra 1 much less the Geometry, Algebra II and a course above this such as Trigonometry, Pre-Calculus, Probability & Stats, or Calculus.  (This is what Tennessee currently requires from all high school students)


So the end result is?  A bunch of watered down courses that hold back the ones who could really benefit from a rigorous course that challenges them.  These are our future engineers, chemists etc being let down because of stupidity on the part of the State Board of Education and their high ideas.


Getting back to the original point...Where are all these "forced to go to college" graduates going to get jobs to pay back their student loans?  China?


What we need is more technical and career training available in our high schools like it use to be.  We need electricians, plumbers, and other trade specialties in our workforce.  A college degree is nice is not necessary to survive if you have a skill!  A college degree can hold you back because many employers will view you as over qualified and are only seeking a job until something else comes along.  Why train someone who is not going to stay?  Waste of time and money!  My $0.02 worth.

Apr 16, 2013 5:50PM

I've seen this first hand as a manager.  As a society we have pushed college as a standard that we have harmed a lot of young people.  These young people end up with debt and are 4 years worth of experience behind their peers.  Some may never advance because they get bypassed by younger and more driver workers without the degree.


A degree is worth less than 4 years of experience in the vast majority of industries.   The only time it is needed is when it is the price of entry into the field which is true for teachers, lawyers, and other professionals.


You know the difference between a first year walmart store manager with a degree and one without?  The one with the degree is 3 plus years older and in debt.  That is it.  I've seen 19 year old walmart store managers (non-super center) before.


People need to stop listening to people who tell them college is the way to earn more.  It isn't.  Drive (which often leads people to get degrees) is what causes people to earn more and have better jobs.

Apr 16, 2013 3:48PM
The definition of "qualified" workers is different for employees and employers and that's a huge problem.  "Educated" means different things now: degreed, apprentice/journeyman/master trained in skilled labor, certified in a field.  Employers need to hire TRAINABLE people, invest in them, pay them well, and offer opportunities for advancement.  Employees need to bone up on what skills are not just "marketable" but transferable and desirable - do you know how to interpret qualitiy control statistics?  Can you analyze a process for manufacturing something in terms of steps/actions AND money?  Can you analyze a process like distribution, purchasing,etc. in terms of time and money?  Are you good at contracts and negotiations?  Are you a scientist or engineer with actual people skills?  Can you speak and write fluently in two or more languages?  Do you actually understand business itself as well as a particular industry?  Do you know how to manage people - schedule, train, coach, lead, and mentor them to succeed?  Apparently, according to employers, we Americans do not have these skills.
Apr 16, 2013 4:06PM
A wicked smart dope is a PHD with 6 figures worth of student loan debt.
Apr 16, 2013 6:34PM
A young woman friend of mine was an attorney, but she wasn't able to find a job, so she worked as a legal secretary.  She begged me not to tell anyone she held a law degree and I always kept it to myself.  Her employer said she was the best legal secretary they ever had.  I don't wonder.  I did the same work at the time, but with a high school diploma as I hadn't yet got my degrees.
Apr 16, 2013 4:28PM
Makes perfect sense.  As far back as the reign of Bill Clinton, with his NAFTA trade agreement, the top jobs have been going to China and elsewhere, leaving the mediocre jobs here.  Even McDonalds now has college educated workers, I understand.  If this continues, we will be again the greatest nation on earth.  I can foresee doctors driving garbage trucks.  Lawyers may be washing dishes at the local steak house.  We can then brag we have the smartest and best qualified dishwashers and truck drivers in the world!!!  The Cadillac plants can move to Mexico but the Ford Falcons may come back!!!  But there will always be jobs in the military.  We'll have to fight the whole world.  Leave it to CONgress.  They're looking out for Bullmerica. People can sell inshawance too.
Apr 16, 2013 7:22PM

I only have an AA degree but I found that for many jobs that I applied for I had to omit even that. This was many years ago but even then I was told several times that I was over qualified & they didn't want to waste training me just to have me quit when something better came along. I finally wound up retiring from the Post Office as a mailman.

Getting an education so as to know more is great but it has been pushed way too hard as being for everyone. Learning a trade is far more useful. You can always get a job & you can be able to move anywhere IF you have useful job skills & experience.

Apr 16, 2013 4:43PM
It is that way because stupid employers/greedy corporations lists at lead a decade of experiences and all the requirements they can think of for an entry level job requirements in their field.  Then they have excuses to outsource to foreign job agencies that employs visa workers with less experiences.  Go look at GE' IT departments.
Apr 16, 2013 4:06PM
I owe I owe so off to work I go! :(,
Apr 16, 2013 8:22PM
This is what I've been saying for years. The jobs aren't here, while some people keep stressing that we need more education. Education for what? We no longer have the jobs. We have the worlds smartest waitresses, grocery checkers, and fast food workers. All with a ton of debt.
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