Why qualifications won't guarantee you a job anymore

By Neil Patrick

Research says there's an abundance of skilled technical workers in the US. Employers say they can't find enough people with technical skills...so who's right?

Last week I was sent a report by a friend. It was a lengthy research piece which reported an oversupply of STEM (science, technical, engineering and maths) qualified workers in the US.

Since he’s an engineer who’s been engaged in a very lengthy job search, he couldn't square this report with the constant allegations from employers that they can’t find the right people with the right technical skills. He thought something didn’t add up. And I agreed with him.

The findings in the report were consistent with other examinations of the STEM labor market. These found no evidence of a general shortage of STEM workers. (That’s because they weren’t looking at the right things as I’ll explain shortly).

STEM jobs remain scarce not workers

In 2012, in the US, there were more than twice as many people with STEM degrees (immigrant and native) as there were STEM jobs — 5.3 million STEM jobs vs. 12.1 million with STEM degrees. And only one-third of US natives with a STEM degree that hold a job do so in a STEM occupation.

Further, one-third of STEM workers do not have a STEM degree, suggesting that absence of a STEM qualification isn’t an insurmountable obstacle to many jobs in the sector.

Perhaps most tellingly, real wages for almost all categories of STEM workers have shown almost no growth for more than a decade. None of this is consistent with the idea that STEM workers are in short supply.

So why are employers reporting the opposite?

At the root of the problem is the fact that the researchers were academics. In other words, out of touch with the real world. In fact it was quite possible, they’d never even set foot in it, such is the way that universities often hermetically seal their research people away from business and industry.

So where’s the error?

The researchers had used the number of people holding STEM degrees as their prime metric to measure the total available workforce of techies, and on this basis they concluded that the supply was ample to meet the needs of employers.

Here’s why that’s a mistake…

Employers do not view educational qualifications as their key measure of suitability for employment. It’s a hygene factor. It qualifies you for consideration, not for hiring. So it’s perfectly possible for employers to say they have a skills shortage because educational qualifications alone do not make candidates automatically employable. They also require (rightly or wrongly) evidence of relevant previous work experience and personality fit.

Introducing the latest bubble…it’s higher education

We all know that the recession means that business growth has been in short supply over the last 5 or 6 years. Meanwhile the educational fat cats have continued to happily make money by churning out people with qualifications, even though suitable jobs have been too scarce to allow sufficient numbers to gain relevant work experience.

It’s a pipe, connected to a tap – the tap has been left turned on and the pipe has contracted (at least for the past few years), resulting in an inevitable blockage.

Source: ONS

The higher education sector has become big business. And like all big businesses, it’s hungry for constant growth. As the graph above shows, the proportion of graduates in the UK population has more than doubled since 1992.

The educational ‘export’ market has been a particularly lucrative business as the aspirational middle classes have massively expanded in the far east economies. Every time I set foot in a UK higher education institution, the place is packed with overseas students.

This bubble  is unsustainable...

My good friend and bubble expert Jesse Colombo has done a great deal of forensic work examining the education bubble in the US. I’ll just quote a little of his analysis here:

Even more alarming than the rate of tuition growth is the blistering increase in total outstanding student loans, which grew 511% since 1999 to $1 trillion (surpassing total credit card debt for the first time), with today’s average student graduating with 50% more student debt than graduates in 2001.

Student loans made by the federal government rose a white-hot 31.9 percent in the 12 months through November 2011. Even Moody’s is warning that student loans may be the next financial bubble to burst, while a recent FICO survey shows that two-thirds of bank risk managers are seriously concerned about the student debt loads held by students in the country.

For more of Jesse’s detailed analysis of this topic just follow this link.

When I went to university here in the UK in 1981, well under 15% of my peers did the same. And the state paid for it by means of a modest, means-tested grant with a contribution from my parents (thanks Mum and Dad) which I had to supplement by working at (instead of drinking at) a bar.

Back then, universities were not businesses. For better or worse they were state institutions. And they acted like it…they were slow to change and whilst they could spell "innovative financial leverage", they didn't really practice it.

But that was all set to change when government decided that it was a good idea (i.e. vote winning) to proclaim that university education was elitist and it was socially just to get more young people from less privileged backgrounds into the university system. It also appeared to be a handy way to reduce the growing numbers of the young unskilled unemployed. Instead of a glut of young people signing on for state benefits as soon as they left school, this would create a new generation of educated and aspirational young people, eager to take the economy to hew heights. Except this had to be paid for by them signing up to government debt, using what I can only describe as career mortgages.

The trouble is that whilst I agree with its egalitarian principles, this vision missed the vital recognition that this expanded output from the education system needed to dovetail precisely with the ever evolving needs of business and industry.

And that's where everything went horribly and tragically wrong.

So do we have a more employable population? Not quite. While the elite universities have expanded only modestly, protected their brand value and retained their high quality standards, there’s been an absolute explosion of less selective, lower quality degree courses made available to almost anyone who is willing to pay for them.

Young and old alike are both losers in this game. Oversupply of university educated people has created a glut of unsatisfied aspirations and debt for the young, and done little to provide businesses with the skills they seek in their workforces.

For the mature and experienced, it’s seen the perception of the value of their years of accumulated know how crumble in the eyes of employers who place the highest value on the most recent qualifications (provided this is backed up with recent and relevant experience).

Oh and of course the UK and US governments have also burdened each and every one of us with another massive government debt that will sooner or later have to be written off or bailed out...

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