More than half of supervisory jobs now require a college degree. Are you getting better service?

A lot of employers seem to think so when it comes to front-line management jobs. And this trend may be at once closing off opportunities for workers to advance and also starving employers of talent.

There’s been a general trend toward employers requiring a bachelor’s degree for positions that didn’t require one in the past. This degree inflation, or “upcredentialing,” sometimes happens because the job has become more complex. More often, however, employers seem to use a degree as a proxy for “soft skills” they don’t believe will be learned in high school or other training programs.

Supervising other people, of course, requires a generous helping of soft skills: communication, organization, time management, and other qualities. But, historically, managers in fields like construction, retail, bank branch operations, or customer service were selected primarily by succeeding in more junior positions. That gave workers access to upward opportunity and it gave employers access to a large pool of existing talent. Now, increasingly, that is no longer the case.

Consider the “credentials gap” between the education employers request and the credentials the current occupants of those jobs have. Based on Burning Glass’ database of more than a half-million current and historical job postings, that gap is surprisingly wide.

 

Occupation Percentage of job posts requesting B.A. Percentage of current jobholders with B.A. Credentials Gap
Construction Supervisor 47% 12% 35%
Retail Supervisors 53% 25% 28%
Production Supervisors 73% 16% 57%
Transportation, Storage, and Distribution Supervisors 81% 29% 52%

 

Clearly the idea that up to half of current front-line supervisors aren’t qualified for the jobs they hold is absurd. But, just as clearly, this is bad news for entry-level workers in these industries.

Traditionally these supervisory jobs are the first step upward into career paths that that can support a middle-class lifestyle. Average advertised salaries for these roles range from $54,000 to $58,000 per year. Requiring a college degree puts this next step on the ladder out of reach for many workers. These are huge segments of our economy—retail alone employs more than 15 million people. Yet, more than half of all retail management positions ask for a bachelor’s degree. And it’s worth remembering that two-thirds of Americans over age 25 don’t have a bachelor’s degree, according to the Census Bureau. That’s too many people to leave behind.

Short of getting every American a four-year degree, what might be the answer? Non-traditional providers, like coding boot camps, have developed a model for short-term training. So far, these providers have had the most success in highly defined technical fields: coding and programming skills, for example. But this model might have promise in other areas as well.

While some large corporations do an admirable job of providing management training programs, such opportunities aren’t always widely available – especially for workers in small businesses that lack the resources to provide training.

The boot camp model holds much promise for delivering the specific package of hard and soft skills workers need to advance to management – in a way that is far cheaper, faster, and more accessible than a college degree. To make this model work, a few things would have to be in place:

  • For many entry-level workers, management positions aren’t even on their radar. Leading industry associations, community colleges, and nontraditional providers have been rising to this challenge, providing workers with clear career pathways in and through these industries – planning guides they can use to plot out which skills they will need to learn and when.
  • Workers will need help financing these new training options. Low- and middle-income workers usually can’t afford to pay for this kind of training out of their own pockets, yet right now federal student aid is only available for full degree programs. Given the mixed history of non-traditional training, there would need to be safeguards to ensure that these courses have real value. The federal government’s new EQUIP pilot program (in which Burning Glass is a participant) should provide useful answers on how a system like this should work.

Degree inflation unnecessarily risks turning millions of entry level jobs into jobs with no hope of advancement. We need new models that enable employers to get the soft skills they need while keeping open the pathways of opportunity.

Vote for my SXSW PanelPicker IdeaBurning Glass and several partner organizations have proposed a panel around these questions for next year’s SXSWedu conference, titled Scaling the boot camp model for middle class jobs We hope you’ll consider voting for the panel in the SXSW PanelPicker and help keep the discussion going on these critical questions. 

Matthew Sigelman is CEO of Burning Glass Technologies.
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