Surprise: College Grads Aren’t the Only Ones Who Feel Underemployed

A new study shows that across education levels, Americans feel overqualified for their jobs.

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Yesterday I wrote about how it’s common knowledge by now that many recent college graduates are underemployed -- there is plenty of evidence that young grads are working in occupations like bartending and retail sales that don’t require a college degree. Despite this fact, college still gives young adults a $17,500 earnings premium over their high-school-educated peers, according to a new Pew Research Center report.

[STUDY: Income Gap Between Young College and High School Grads Widens]

But the report also shows that employed Americans all feel relatively equally qualified for their current jobs, regardless of their educational levels.

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Note: Margin of error is +/- 3.3 percentage points.

Similar levels of people with high school diplomas or less, two-year degrees or some college, and four-year degrees or more say they feel they have more qualifications than their job requires. Meanwhile, around half of all people also say they have exactly the right qualifications for their jobs.

What does this say? From one point of view, it would seem to suggest the education system at several levels isn’t training people perfectly for the jobs that are out there, instead giving lots of people superfluous skills (whether the main purpose of education is to train people for jobs is another article altogether).

Then again, some overqualification might be natural -- perform even a difficult task for long enough, and it can feel simple. That process of growing increasingly qualified (or even overqualified) can help keep the labor market fluid: Feeling overqualified is one thing that spurs people to move to new jobs, opening up lower-level jobs for less-trained workers.

[ALSO: Does the Margin of Error Make the Jobs Report Meaningless?]

Plus there’s the question of what any given survey respondent defines as “overqualified.” An art history major who has never made a latte is technically underqualified to be a barista until he or she learns it.

Though attitudes about qualifications appear uniform across educational levels, they are not uniform within those groups. Among college graduates, Pew found a wide gap between disciplines on the over/underqualified question. Fully 42 percent of social science, liberal arts, and education majors say they are overqualified for their jobs, along with 39 percent of business majors. Meanwhile, only 28 percent of science and engineering graduates say they are overqualified.

It's also important to note that people's attitudes about the usefulness of their educations does differ by education level, to more of a degree than their feelings about their qualifications. Fully 44 percent of people with a two-year degree say their jobs are "not very closely" or "not at all" related to their fields of study, along with 37 percent of people with bachelor's degrees. However, only 16 percent of people with post-graduate degrees say the same.