Over-qualified graduates?

The European Union publishes an annual report entitled Key Data on Education in Europe. In the 2012 issue there is some interesting statistical analysis of the structure and nature of Europe’s education systems. For me, one finding suggested in the report rather stands out:

‘… A growing number of young people appear to be overqualified for the type of employment they find. This suggests the need for more efficient forecasting of the short- and long-term needs of the labour market with a view to providing reliable educational and careers guidance to students so that improvements can be made in matching young people’s educational qualifications with actual employment opportunities.’

At first sight it is not easy to see the basis for this conclusion in the data recorded, but it appears to rest on the finding that, across Europe, up to 40 per cent or so of graduates find work as technicians, clerks, craft workers or machine operators – the assumption being that none of these jobs require higher education degrees. In other words, it is assumed that the graduates working in them do so because they could not find employment more suitable to their qualifications.

Of course in a recession graduates, like others, will find it more difficult to secure employment, and some will opt for non-ideal jobs that will at least give them an income. But the same report also finds that graduates find work ‘two times faster’ than non-graduates.

In many countries it has been public policy for a while to increase participation in higher education, and to upgrade educational qualifications across the population. It would be highly reckless to suggest now that this has been a mistake. In fact, much more analysis would have to be done before anyone could conclude that people are leaving higher education with qualifications beyond their needs. The European report suggests that maybe students are choosing the wrong subjects, and there is some evidence to support that contention: we know for example that there are significant vacancies in the information  technology sector that, even now, cannot be filled with appropriately qualified graduates. On the other hand the evidence still is that all graduates are more likely to find a job quickly.

Careers guidance and the careful selection of programmes of study is always desirable, but in the end there is still little evidence that a university education, of whatever kind, does anything other than support labour market success. Public policy should continue to recognise this.

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4 Comments on “Over-qualified graduates?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Is it not true then that IT is moving so fast that finding grads for precise positions is a fools errand anyway. Surely the best the IT companies can expect is that the new entrant hit the ground moving forward and can after about six months be humming along nicely. This is why I wonder when I hear on the BBC or RTE that X-number of qualified people are needed for jobs in IT, when really what they are looking for is cheap innovators, I suspect. Surely if they were truly short there wouldn’t be a computer grad in any other employment, so good would be the remuneration.

  2. There are two separate issues here: (1) does having a degree benefit the graduates and (2) does having more graduates benefit society.

    The answer to (1) is clearly and unequivocally ‘yes’, graduates do much better than non-graduates in the labour market. But if this is partly achieved by graduates taking jobs which non-graduates could in fact easily do (and it is), then we may just be seeing redistribution from non-graduates to graduates.

    So the report you quote has it pretty much backwards. At an individual level young people would clearly not be better advised to remain non-graduates when there are graduates out there taking away the ‘non-graduate’ jobs. ‘Reliable educational and careers guidance’ should reflect this.

    To look at the social question, we need to consider who the graduates are. If graduates are drawn disproportionately from already-privileged social groups (and they are) then distribution of jobs from non-graduates to graduates will increase social inequality. Some people feel this is a bad thing.

  3. Wendymr Says:

    This has been an ongoing trend for some time. I remember noticing in the 1990s that some employers were stating preferences for university graduates for office administration positions, for example.

    There are several key issues here. First, if graduates – who now in many cases have to pay (and pay significantly) towards the cost of their education – end up in jobs which are not really considered ‘graduate’ positions, how do these graduates feel about their investment, and about the value of university education as a whole? How might they influence others thinking about applying to university? Whatever we might like to think, students increasingly view higher education as a commodity, and the one question I get asked most frequently by those considering applying to higher education is ‘what kind of job will this get me at the end?’ (closely followed by ‘what will I be earning?’).

    Second, if graduates are pushing out non-graduates from mid-level jobs which in the past have not required more than secondary school, then where do those people who would have filled those positions go? McDonald’s? Or will it spur yet more increases in HE participation, creating yet more graduates to compete for this pool of non-graduate jobs? And will this lead again to ‘education inflation’, where to have any chance of a decent job people need a postgraduate qualification? (I wrote about this some time ago in my guest blog here). And what happens to those who, for a variety of reasons – intellectual capacity, learning style, financial considerations, family reasons – can’t get a degree?

    Finally, if a university degree is, in many cases, only going to lead to a job as a secretary or bank clerk (for example), what’s in it for funders – who, one assumes, are motivated more by economic considerations than by belief in the intrinsic value of education? Sure, they’ll want to continue funding degrees in mathematics and IT and engineering and professional healthcare fields and so on, but who cares about the humanities and arts if those graduates are only going to end up wearing a uniform and asking would you like fries with that? (to exaggerate, of course).

  4. In Australia we’re also launching into a centrally planned expansion in higher education participation that could be fairly described as an “upgrade” of education qualifications across the population. So we’re familiar with the policy framework that you’re protecting from reckless inquiry here, and this is my question: what if it’s reckless not to question whether the problems facing underemployed graduates might lie in either the policy or in its implementation—or, more likely, in the way expansion policy drives student recruitment strategies?

    In fact, what if recruitment is the real area of recklessness, that deserves some scrutiny? Are we giving students the advice they need to improve their employment prospects, or the advice we need to give to protect ours? Awkward.

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