Employer demand for degrees projected to grow strongly in US

Amid heavy attention on certificates and scepticism toward traditional higher education, Georgetown jobs projection shows rising value of four-year graduates

November 17, 2023
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US employer demand for four-year degrees appears to be growing faster than the gains among certificate programmes, showing persistent strength for the bachelor’s as a signal of worker competency, according to new data from the Georgetown University Centre on Education and the Workforce.

About 42 per cent of US jobs will require at least a bachelor’s degree in 2031, up from 36 per cent a decade earlier, the centre says in a new analysis that attempts to look at employer demand across the breadth of the nation’s economy. That anticipated gain of six percentage points is a faster pace than that seen in previous decades, the centre says.

Overall, the share of US jobs requiring any kind of postsecondary training, including degrees and field-specific certificates, is expected to rise from 68 per cent to 72 per cent over the decade ending in 2031, or about the same rate of increase as seen in the past, centre officials say.

The numbers are a reminder for US higher education that, despite heavy attention on certificates and some political scepticism about the value of traditional higher education, four-year degrees still command respect in the job market, said a co-author of the report, Nicole Smith, a research professor and chief economist of the Georgetown centre.

“Standing aside from politics, the economics is clear,” Professor Smith said. “The distribution of the jobs that are growing fastest are those that use postsecondary education intensely – in particular, the BA – and shows very strong growth over the next decade.”

Politicians from both major US parties, but especially Republicans, have been prodding US colleges and universities to put greater emphasis on educational options that don’t require the time and cost of a full degree.

The chair of the education committee in the US House, Virginia Foxx, a Republican from North Carolina, has been a leading advocate, urging federal action to help companies recognise the benefits of non-degree training. “Supporting the multiple educational pathways that Americans are choosing will make a difference only if employers are willing to look beyond the bachelor’s degree and recognise talent wherever it exists,” Ms Foxx told a congressional hearing this summer.

The Georgetown report came far from suggesting any loss of confidence in certificates, Professor Smith said. College and university presidents were “trying to get the best bang for their buck”, she said. “They want to offer opportunity to the widest array of individuals, and do it as quickly as possible.”

Institutions could deliver certificates and associate degrees quicker, “but, at the end of the day, the economy is still asking for a lot of BAs”, she said.

The Georgetown analysis views the US economy as having three main sectors – agricultural, manufacturing and all others, generally classified as services. The growth was coming in that third sector and employers there “are requiring more and more postsecondary education and training”, Professor Smith said.

While bachelor’s degrees are important both for the actual skills that students acquire, and for the general declaration of competence that they signal for their holder, the latter value appears to be the one more prized by employers, Professor Smith said. “It’s a signalling of competencies,” she said.


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