New Research From Bain Shows Only 25% of Jobs Need a College Degree

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  • A Bain & Co report found that 60% of good jobs required a four-year degree, but only 25% needed one.
  • Chris Bierly, a Bain partner, said such requirements excluded qualified candidates.
  • Employers should consider a skills-based approach and create new pathways for opportunities.

When employers set education requirements for jobs that pay a living wage, they may be cutting off a sizable portion of workers from good jobs that don’t need a four-year degree.

A new report from Bain & Company found that 60% of jobs that pay a living wage required a bachelor’s degree, but only 25% of those positions involved skills that candidates would earn in college, according to an internal analysis of job postings.

The findings have major implications for how employers screen candidates, said Chris Bierly, a senior partner at Bain and coauthor of the report.

“We’re actually living in a very exciting time for job creation,” said Bierly, who compiled the report alongside fellow Bain partner, Abigail Smith. “If we can do a better job — both educators and employers — of shaping educational pathways to good jobs that are efficient and effective, it has huge implications for society.”

According to 2016 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, 35% of white US adults had a bachelor’s degree or higher. That number dropped to 21% for Black adults and 15% for Hispanic adults, huge swaths of historically leaving underrepresented groups out of the running for many good jobs. And the pool is only shrinking. College enrollment fell by 6.8% in 2020, a report from the National Student Clearinghouse said.

Bierly said eliminating the bachelor’s-degree requirement could help companies achieve diversity in their talent pool and more easily meet broader hiring goals.

In turn, he said, employers have a crucial role to play, such as helping employees develop new skills and partnering with educational institutions beyond four-year colleges to get more people at the door.

How companies can create new pathways

Bierly’s team arrived at its findings by combing through over 50 million job postings from the labor-market analytics firm Emsi Burning Glass. It began by determining which roles were “good jobs,” meaning they paid a living wage, based on the role’s location, and were less vulnerable to automation.

The team then evaluated the “good jobs” to see which types of positions always listed a four-year degree, compared to other types of jobs that sometimes listed education requirements and other times didn’t. The analysis found that about 60% of “good jobs” required a four-year degree, despite one in four of them not requiring the skills of a college education.

Bierly chalked this up to how recruitment and hiring often work today. As technology has automated the hiring process and increased the volume of applications, recruiting teams are working quickly and deferring to educational criteria as an easy filter.

The new data has Bierly urging companies to consider a perhaps terrifying solution: Ditch the degree-requirement. If companies sat down and thought about the skills that a job required, he said, they could find different parameters to find potential candidates.

Bierly also encouraged companies to look at their own in frontline jobs and create pathways such as apprenticeships or partnerships with educational institutions to access talent within a company. For instance, a healthcare company might recruit workers from a community college or a technical school with a specialization in medical billing or pharmacy tech.

Carolyn Kleiman, a career coach and strategist, emphasized the value of a bachelor’s degree, but she added that college isn’t for everyone. Many other pathways also taught skills for the professional world, she said.

“There’s this idea that you have to have a college degree just to get invited,” Kleiman said. “In some cases, the value of a degree is empirical. But there’s also a lot of jobs out there where a certificate program, a fast-track continuing-education program, and even some on-the-job training would fit the bill.” ”

Bierly encouraged employers to keep an open mind as they loosen their requirements for stable, high-paying jobs — not only because these candidates are an untapped talent pool of skilled labor but also because it’s the right thing to do.

“Employers leaning into skills-based hiring is an opportunity for diversity, equity, and inclusion” Bierly said. “It could open up a lot of jobs that underrepresented populations today don’t have access to.”

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