Clerical help wanted -- college degree required

A four-year college degree has long been seen as the ticket to a better life. These days, though, it may be your ticket to a job as a file clerk, at least initially.

According a national survey by CareerBuilder, 41 percent of employers are hiring college grads for jobs that were once held largely by those with only a high school education. That figure is up from 37 percent of companies that reported doing so in a CareerBuilder survey released last year.

And in turn, workers with bachelor’s degrees have lost ground to those with greater credentials. CareerBuilder also reported that 33 percent of employers are hiring more workers with master’s degrees for jobs that used to be held largely by those with bachelor’s degrees, up from 27 percent in the previous survey.

Why do employers continue to raise the educational bar? Because they can.

While the labor market has improved significantly since the Great Recession, it’s still chock-full of job seekers who have college degrees but not necessarily the skills in highest demand, including science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

In fact, CareerBuilder reported that more than half of employers that are hiring workers with college degrees to fill jobs traditionally held by high school grads said they could do so because of the current labor market.

“Employers are certainly willing, in this excessive [labor] supply situation, to hire people who might appear to be overqualified,” said David Passmore, a professor in the workforce education and development program at Pennsylvania State University.

Saddled with high levels of student loan debt, many college grads feel they may have no choice but to take whatever job they can get. That might help to explain why wages for the college educated haven’t climbed all that much during the recovery: About half of college grads earn less now than they did in 2000. Median earnings for college grads stood at $24.99 per hour in 2016, about 1.5 percent less than they earned in 2000, according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).

“The labor market is in a funky condition,” said Passmore. “We have lower unemployment, but at the same time we have not had any real wage growth. Even though people are being hired, many are willing to accept a lower wage to get into the labor market,” he added. 

Of course, CareerBuilder’s findings are even more disillusioning for those with just a high school degree. Not only are they losing jobs to workers with more education, but the pay gap between college-educated workers and high school grads has never been larger. On average, college grads earned 56 percent more than high school grads in 2015, according to an EPI study. That was the largest such gap in EPI’s figures dating back to 1973.

On the bright side, some of the fasting-growing jobs in the U.S. require technical skills, such as computer coding, but not necessarily a four-year college degree, explained Passmore. In 2015, as many as 7 million job openings required coding skills, according to a report from analytics firm Burning Glass. 

“People with high school-level skills are being hollowed out of the labor market,” said Passmore. He added, “If you have a high school diploma without technical skills, you will be in a long line of people waiting for jobs.”