Why Some Employers Are Lowering Their Standards

In some industries, jobs are lowering their educational standards, but it may be bad for mobility.

Professor helps student on classroom computer

By analyzing online job posting data, the company found that lower-end IT jobs, like the people at the computer store who help customers install software, are among the jobs that have down-credentialed the most.

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When jobs lower their standards it makes it easier for some people to get onto the career ladder. But it comes alongside a new problem: in some industries, the middle rungs are disappearing, making the climb virtually impossible without a boost.

The conventional wisdom is that you need a four-year degree to do any job these days—even low-level administrative work often requires a bachelor's degree. However, data show that a variety of jobs have lowered their standards in recent years. And while it seems like good news for people who have not or will not complete college, it has troubling implications for upward mobility in the U.S.

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Data from labor market analysis firm Burning Glass Technologies show the occupations in which employers have lowered the educational requirements—or "down-credentialed"—in recent years. By analyzing online job posting data, the company found that lower-end IT jobs, like the people at the computer store who help customers install software, are among the jobs that have down-credentialed the most. In 2007, around 63 percent of those jobs required four-year degrees. Now, 57 percent do. Non-retail sales positions—think insurance salespeople—have seen similar changes, with the share of those jobs requiring four-year degrees down from 63 to 56 percent. In addition, the share of these jobs asking for an associate's degree or less has grown by 21 percent. Mechanical drafters and occupational safety technicians also have seen these downward requirement shifts, but to lesser degrees.

On the one hand, that is good news: people with less than a four-year degree desperately need jobs. The jobless rate is 6.7 percent among those with some college or an associate's degree, 7.9 percent among high school graduates, and 11.2 percent among people who did not complete high school. However, this down-credentialing also signals a sort of growing labor-market inequality, says Matthew Sigelman, CEO of Burning Glass. He explains by using the example of computer support workers.

"As you look at some of these low-end IT professions, you split them out and you look at B.A.-level jobs versus sub-B.A. jobs, they just really look like totally different jobs," says Sigelman.

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"The jobs at the top are involved in actually kind of dealing with major software issues and technical troubleshooting and really all this stuff that you need some core engineering skills to do. At the bottom end it's the Geek Squad—quite literally, actually, in many cases," he adds.

Indeed, a search for "Geek Squad" on Best Buy's jobs site indicates that there are plenty of low-requirement jobs out there, yielding more than 4,000 postings, many of which require a high school diploma or the equivalent, and some of which do not require a diploma at all. A Best Buy spokesman tells U.S. News in an email that while a majority of the company's Geek Squad jobs require only a high school diploma or the equivalent, the company "highly value[s] certifications to demonstrate that the individual has the skill and aptitude to do something."

So, what does it matter? Proportionally speaking, after all, very few Americans will sell life insurance, or be tasked with diagramming machine parts. But this down-credentialing comes alongside an up-credentialing in other jobs, says Sigelman, splitting the workforce into "haves" and "have-nots."

The key factor behind this split is technology, explains one labor market expert.

"We've automated the hell out of the low-skill, low-wage sector," says Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. "Mostly what that does is it drives a wedge between people who have high school or less and people who have some post-secondary education."

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While insurance salespeople once had to identify and pursue leads, for example, data-driven technology now helps with that task, making that job lower-skilled. Meanwhile, someone with highly specialized data skills may work with the technology to find those leads. Likewise, while the knowledge requirements for computer support technicians may not change, the people in the higher-up jobs increasingly need higher-level skills, says Sigelman.

UPDATED 3/28/2013: This story was updated to include comment from Best Buy.