Changing the Narrative – But Is the Narrative Right or Wrong?

In a recent article in The Job – Higher Ed & The Workforce, Paul Fain writes about a new national advertising campaign kicking off in September that will attempt to influence employers to reduce the four-year degree requirement for hiring.

The argument for the campaign is that there is a paper ceiling that holds back more than half of the workforce from jobs posted with bachelor’s degree requirements.

The ads are from Opportunity@Work and the Ad Council. Opportunity@Work, a 501c3 was founded “in part” to support and grow TechHire, an Obama White House initiative to connect overlooked communities with technology job openings.

The premise for the campaign is that there are 70 million STARs, workers Skilled Through Alternative Routes, who have experience, skills, and diverse perspectives who are held back by the bachelor’s degree ceiling. The preliminary tidbits and literature released for the campaign focus on the “skills” of this group of workers and not their intellectual and thinking capabilities.

Mr. Fain points out that research has found that fewer job postings are calling for degrees. However, he cites a recent Burning Glass Institute paper that posits the issue is much more complex and predicts that 1.4 million jobs could shift from bachelor’s degree requirements over the next five years, not 70 million.

According to Mr. Fain, the message will feel “like a broadside” to some in traditional higher education suffering from enrollment declines, hostile lawmakers, and criticisms about higher ed’s failures to improve economic mobility. Mr. Fain cites the director of the STARs group, Ms. Kate Naranjo, as stating that “if we want to rebuild economic mobility, we must see both college and ‘alternative routes’ as viable ways to build a thriving labor force and a path to the middle class.”

Call me a skeptic, but I doubt that this campaign will improve the plight of many of the 70 million Americans it wants to benefit. The continuing advancement of technology, especially artificial technology, and robotics, will eliminate jobs that require routine thinking or routine fixed location skillwork.

Two books that I have written about, Long Life Learning by Michelle R. Weise and Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines by Jamie Merisotis, provide an excellent overview about why workers will need to be prepared for a long life of continuous learning in order to avoid the interruptions from a job eliminated due to technology advances.

I haven’t seen a parsing of the 70 million STAR workers to know what their intellectual capabilities are or their interest in continuous learning, but I’m willing to be that no more than half of that group will be able to up their game to match the skills acquired by those individuals who earn a bachelor’s degree. I’d be willing to bet that it’s less than half, but that would take me down the rabbit hole of examining K-12 education in the U.S. and asking why we substantially decreased vocational education years ago at the same time we lowered our academic standards for high school graduates.

If Opportunity@Work wants to help STARs, they should engage in a broader focus than employers. My guess is that the Burning Glass Institute data are representative of the probability that job requirements could shift by five percent, not forty percent. The pending recession will cause employers to reexamine their job requirements as well as the number of employees that they need on their staff if sales slow. I think it’s likely that some employers will choose to invest in technology that can replace some people positions, particularly if those positions cost more money after inflation and the great job reset.

America will be better off focusing on improving its education system starting with K-12, rebuilding a vocational education system, incentivizing companies to reskill employees, and finding ways to lower the costs of higher education for those who can earn a bachelor’s degree (which also means it doesn’t have to require four years). Whether colleges and universities take up the challenge to provide educational offerings that allow their graduates to continue to stay ahead of technology changes is up to them. If they don’t, other entities will find a way to meet the needs of the market and individuals.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence