SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.
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SALLY HERSHIPS, HOST:
The labor market is kind of mystifying right now. There are a record-setting 10 million jobs unfilled. But at the same time, millions of Americans are out of work. But there may be a solution. It is just this tiny little thing, a requirement that employers routinely ask for on job listings which could be tripping them up. And this thing? It is a bachelor's degree.
BYRON AUGUSTE: Sixty percent of working Americans and two-thirds of all adult Americans do not have bachelor's degree. So if you're going to exclude 6 out of 10 people, and you're going to exclude them across the board, you're losing a lot of talent.
DARIAN WOODS, HOST:
Byron Auguste was an economic adviser under President Obama, and now he is the CEO of Opportunity@Work. That is a nonprofit which helps workers without four-year degrees get better jobs.
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WOODS: This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Darian Woods.
HERSHIPS: I'm Sally Herships, in for Stacey Vanek Smith. Today on the show, we look at how this one seemingly average requirement to get a job - a four-year college degree - can create an entire waterfall and exhaustingly long list of unintended negative consequences for workers, businesses and the economy as a whole.
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HERSHIPS: Darian, do you remember applying for jobs when you were younger?
HERSHIPS: Well, way back in the 1990s, when I was in college, I would go to the newspaper store and buy an actual paper copy of The New York Times. And I would look in the Help Wanted section. And then I would race all over the city and drop off my resumes.
WOODS: If you were an employer back in the 1990s who had to look over 20 or 30 resumes, you probably could have done that yourself. And you could do the same thing today, but times have changed. We've gone digital. Byron Auguste runs a nonprofit to help workers without college degrees.
AUGUSTE: Now, if, let's say you get 400 applications for the job, you're not actually going to have a human screen it. You're going to use something called an applicant tracking system. And what - one of the most important functions of that is to use the kind of a keyword search to screen out the large majority of applications before any human has to look at it.
HERSHIPS: Applicant tracking systems let companies use algorithms to screen resumes. So if you're sorting through resumes, you can just search them for keywords like degree, which can seem super convenient and efficient. But Byron says removing humans from this equation can also create some unintended and massive and expensive problems.
AUGUSTE: So with one fell swoop, everyone who thinks they might be able to do this job but who doesn't have a bachelor's degree is excluded, meaning they're not even considered. They're not - it's not that they are considered and found wanting. They are not considered for the job.
WOODS: And you should know that Byron is a fan of college. It can prepare you for life in wonderful ways, he says. It can be a bridge to opportunity. But he says that college is not the only way to prepare workers for the job market.
AUGUSTE: The thing that is absolutely wrong that you hear a lot is the notion that, well, the reason we require a college degree is because it shows that someone can stick with a task or that, you know, someone, you know, will see it through or they have the ability to be organized and to plan.
HERSHIPS: Yeah. There are so many other ways that employers can assess potential hires. They could look at job training programs, community college and work experience from other jobs. But that can be a problem, too.
AUGUSTE: By the way, work experience is still highly valued for people with bachelor's degrees, but it's less highly valued for people without bachelor's degrees.
HERSHIPS: That seems super unfair. OK. I'm going to make a weird connection here, but stay with me.
HERSHIPS: I used to cover a lot of stories on online dating apps. And science has shown that what we think we want - in my case, when I was younger, maybe a cool guy who rode a motorcycle and played bass in a band - that is rarely the person we actually end up with. We just think we know what we want and check off all those little boxes on autopilot. I'm going to let Byron translate this idea to the labor market.
AUGUSTE: Only about a third of administrative assistants today have a bachelor's degree, but 75% percent of new job postings for administrative assistants say that a bachelor's degree is required. And if an admin assistant can't get a better job in her own field, then somebody else can't get the job she or he was in. And it just freezes up the whole labor market. And that's a lot of what is happening today.
HERSHIPS: I mean, where did this idea that you have to have a bachelor's degree come from?
AUGUSTE: Well, in terms of how it happened, it does have to do with the fact that far more people started going to college in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s.
WOODS: So there were a lot more college graduates. And every time there's a recession, like back in 2008, there weren't a lot of jobs out there. So employers could be a lot pickier.
HERSHIPS: Which brings us to the next in our very long and exhaustive list of problems, because Byron says one of the main ways people learn skills is on the job. And if that doesn't happen, a few years later, the country ends up with a shortage of skilled workers. And then those workers get stuck with low pay, parents can't afford to send their kids to college, and the cycle continues.
AUGUSTE: If we are taking 80% of the kind of economic potential which is in people, not machines, not real estate, and we're saying for 60% of those people, we're going to cap what you are able to do unless you can find some way to work around this system that's holding you back, well, then we should not be surprised when our economy's growth rate is slowing down, when income inequality is soaring.
WOODS: And wages are depressed. Byron says demanding a four-year bachelor's degree is also discriminatory.
AUGUSTE: When you put a bachelor's degree screen and say, like, you know, no one without a bachelor's degree need apply, you're excluding 80% of Latinos in this country in the workforce. You're excluding almost 70% of African Americans, and very interestingly, about 70% of rural Americans of all backgrounds.
HERSHIPS: Back in the early 1970s, Byron says his dad worked as a shipping clerk in a factory. He didn't have a college degree, but he saw an ad in a local paper that said, learn COBOL - a programming language - and punch your own ticket. That was the IBM computer mainframe computing language. So Byron's dad studied for months, and eventually, he got a job as an entry-level programmer.
AUGUSTE: And that was the trajectory shift of my family into the middle class. And when I think about that, 50 years ago, there was a lot more discrimination against my father as a Black man. But there was a lot less discrimination against him as someone who didn't have a bachelor's degree. And net-net, would he have had the same opportunity today? The answer is mostly not.
HERSHIPS: It feels kind of ironic that a lot of the people behind these big tech companies and sort of like stars of the business world are actually college dropouts.
AUGUSTE: Yeah. I mean, we do have a little bit of a phenomenon where certain people with certain social backgrounds and demographic profiles, it's very cool for them not to have completed college. And it's a sign of initiative and so forth. But for other people with different backgrounds with more financial constraints, it's seen as a mark of failure. And I think that's a very flawed way of seeing the situation in our society.
WOODS: Now, Byron says, there does seem to be a shift. Instead of looking for new hires who have to have that college degree, some larger companies are training and promoting the workers they already have, the ones without that four-year education. But ultimately, he says, there's a potentially easy fix, a simple question employers can ask themselves - do I need a college graduate to do this job?
HERSHIPS: Darian, I don't know. I went to art school (laughter).
WOODS: Well, that's a good endorsement for art school.
HERSHIPS: My watercolor ink wash skills are amazing.
WOODS: (Laughter) I'd like to see that.
This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Julia Ritchey with help from Gilly Moon. It was fact-checked by Kaitlyn Nicholas (ph) and Michael He. The INDICATOR is edited by Kate Concannon and is a production of NPR.
We will have Sally Herships gouache paintings on our Instagram. You can find that at....
HERSHIPS: Oh, my God. I paint cats, Darian.
WOODS: You'll find an array of cat paintings.
HERSHIPS: Oh, my God.
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