Why bother with a degree? A refreshingly forthright presentation by Mike Campbell at the BILD 2010 conference set me thinking once again about the economics of learning and what that means to real people. Mike is based at the UK Commission for Employment and Skills and his speech has many similarities with the work of US professor Anthony Carnevale of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.
Simply put, the populations of both countries are ageing and, simultaneously, workplace skills requirements are changing. Carnevale estimates that by 2018 64% of US jobs will require post-secondary education. The UKCES also predicts ‘the majority’ of UK jobs will require post-secondary education. In Ambition 2020 (p10) and in more detail in Mike Campbell’s presentation and Carnevale’s recent paper on post-secondary education, the point is made that the worry is not just the proportion of jobs that require higher level skills but that the higher level skills already in the workforce are not necessarily in the right industries: there is a large skills mismatch with people underemployed and overskilled for the work in which they find themselves. It is easy to speculate that must lead to disillusionment, boredom and, in all probability, poor productivity – because who works at their best when they feel unappreciated?
The prospect for both the US and the UK is, however, worse than that. Countries with younger demographic profiles have proportionally high skills and education levels in young adults aged 25-34. It might be expected that having more young adults means more young adults gain a certain level of qualification but what is really interesting is the way countries like Korea have just over 60% of their 45-54 year olds with upper secondary education but almost 100% of their 25-34 year olds. For the same age groups the UK manages about a 5% improvement in upper secondary education reaching about 78% (so, well below the percentage of the Koreans) and the US has a slight fall in the number completing their High School diplomas. So, the UK and US are creating high skill jobs in industries for which the older workforce have not been trained and in which the younger ones are not being trained in sufficient quantity; but there are plenty of people in relevant education and training in other countries. UK talk of immigration caps will not improve the job:skill gap. In the US, in Help Wanted, Carnevale states: “Census data show the United States is not producing college-educated workers fast enough to replace retiring baby-boomers.” Both the and the UKCES agree, however, that whole degrees are not necessarily required for those entering the job-market as post-secondary diplomas or, in the US, Associate degrees may be enough. They also agree that more needs to be done to allow re-skilling and lifelong updating for older workers because the good news for those who do not wish to retire is that the jobs are going to be there if the skillsets are right.
So, if you need to learn in order to earn and you need to keep learning in order to stay employable, is it worth bothering with a degree? For some, the answer is always clear-cut but when it is not, non-traditional degrees that allow the flexibility to work while studying (or study while working) make a lot of sense. There is also a growing choice of worthwhile places to attend either part-time or at a distance. As well as the major distance and online universities, some very traditional institutions are looking to offer online and specially-designed part-time courses because they need to do so as their funding sources suffer in the recession/economic downturn. If you choose that route, avoid the diploma mills, look for good learning design aimed at people like you, not full-time campus-based learners, and enjoy! Being part of an economic revolution may not be your first priority but parts of the educational world are making it easier for people of all ages to weave higher level learning throughout unpredicatable career paths.