By Derek Alan Leist
Master’s Candidate in International Security at Sciences Po Paris, from the United States
Systemic underemployment is a legacy of draconian education systems
With unemployment remaining above historical averages in many Western countries, the focus of the political debate there centres around one main issue: How to get people back to work. Meanwhile, the question that no one seems to be posing is ‘why are we so concerned solely with the quantity of jobs created as opposed to the quality of jobs created and matching skilled labour with skilled, technical jobs.’
In the United States, the US Bureau of Labour Statistics recently reported that nearly half of all recent graduates work in fields that do not require a Bachelor’s degree. This is largely due to creeping degree inflation that has accompanied the influx of young people into universities seeking non-technical degrees. This is an unhealthy waste of young minds, human capital and potential innovation.
Today’s society still largely operates on the outdated theory that a Bachelor’s degree is the golden ticket to wealth, professional success and happiness. On the internet, for-profit universities in the United States have taken advantage of this belief by offering online liberal arts degrees in exchange for hefty tuition fees. The University of Phoenix is perhaps the most pernicious of these for-profit universities, which boasts a wide range of degree programmes and certificates from the comfort of your home computer. But at what verifiable benefit to the student? Meanwhile, public and private university costs have also skyrocketed nearly 500% since 1986.
This framework of pricy tuition fees, lack of skilled jobs, and underemployment is completely unsustainable in the long run. Even more troubling is that tight job markets and over-qualification are not only endemic to the United States. In a recent poll by Le Figaro, nearly 79% of students at the French Grandes écoles said that they would like to move abroad to work due – in part due to an increasingly tight job market at home and unfavourable working constraints. So what are the potential consequences and what must be done?
Underemployment is bound to increase the already widening income gap that has been growing since the 2007 credit crisis. Unfortunately, young people are disproportionately affected by these growing global discrepancies between stagnating wages and increasing academic qualifications. This disparity is bound to create greater social tensions in both developed and developing countries, which have further global political and economic consequences. In order to prepare students for today’s business climate, students should be more highly encouraged to do job placements while in tertiary education to develop a better understanding of potential jobs and job entrance requirements before making a decision on university enrolment. Likewise, firms should be offered tax incentives to hire students as interns and in rolling programmes to encourage on-the-job training and integration into the job market prior to the completion of university studies. Likewise, universities should be more transparent with post-graduation job data and world university ranking indices should be qualified with information about the types of jobs and companies that are most likely to be available to students after they walk the stage.
Ultimately, underemployment is bound to remain a pressing issue while international markets are still recovering from the 2007 financial crisis. However, structural reforms can be put in place now to encourage proper job training and education, which will better match individuals with job requirements as job markets begin to flourish. Politicians should place a greater emphasis on finding ways to create sustainable jobs and building the educational structure necessary to teach and train students for the 21st century. We need a 21st century education model for a 21st century global job marketplace.