Measuring the ‘Great (Degree) Reset’

Employers loosened degree requirements in a substantial number of occupations in the years before the pandemic—and the trend has continued, according to a new analysis from the Burning Glass Institute.

Employers loosened degree requirements in hiring for 46 percent of middle-skill occupations and 31 percent of high-skill ones between 2017 and 2019—and the pandemic further accelerated that move, according to a new analysis from the Burning Glass Institute.

The findings in the report, “The Emerging Degree Reset,” are based on researchers’ analysis of more than 51 million job postings in 2017, and from 2019 to March 2021.

Even before this latest analysis, it was clear that employers were dropping degree requirements in many jobs, as they competed for workers. The new analysis attempts to understand how much of that shift is cyclical—driven by the unique circumstances of the pandemic—and how much appears to be more durable and structural. 

  • Of all the occupations that experienced a material change in degree requirements, 63 percent saw the shift begin before the pandemic, what the researchers call a structural reset.

“This reverses a trend toward degree inflation in job postings going back to the Great Recession,” wrote the authors, including Joseph B. Fuller, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School and co-chair of the university’s Project on the Workforce, and Matt Sigelman, president of the Burning Glass Institute and chairman of Emsi Burning Glass. 

They conclude that the ‘degree reset’ is here to stay—and estimate that an additional 1.4 million jobs could open to workers without college degrees over the next five years. As context, Opportunity@Work estimates that at least 70 million Americans lack a bachelor’s degree but have the skills to move into more advanced roles.

“This reset could have major implications for how employers find talent and open up opportunities for the two-thirds of Americans without a college education,” the authors wrote.

The details: The report provides clear evidence of a shift, but it’s a complicated picture.

  • The researchers set aside high-skill roles that they considered closed off to change—jobs in fields like law, medicine, and chemical engineering in which not only a bachelor’s but often advanced education has long been required. The cutoff was occupations in which 90 percent or more of job postings require a bachelor’s or higher.
  • With those roles and low-skill jobs removed, that left about 50 percent of occupations that the report considered open to a degree reset.

Within that pared-back sample, the researchers found that close to half of the middle-skill roles and a third of high-skill ones saw a material shift in degree requirements. Critically, those are job categories experiencing change, not shifts in the total number of jobs requiring a bachelor’s.

What do jobseekers see?

In practice: Here’s how that plays out in tech, for example. Computer programmers and computer support specialists both are experiencing degree resets, according to the analysis. Computer programming, a high-skill occupation, has seen a structural shift in hiring.

  • Between 2017 and 2019, the number of posted jobs for computer programmers requiring a bachelor’s dropped about 5 percent. They then saw a tiny additional drop between 2019 and 2020.
  • On net, almost 79 percent of job postings for computer programmers in 2020 still required a bachelor’s or higher, but that was down from 83 percent in 2017.

Computer support specialists, a middle-skill occupation, have seen a cyclical reset that may not be sustained beyond the pandemic.

  • Between 2017 and 2019, the number of posted jobs for computer support specialists requiring a bachelor’s actually increased slightly. The occupation then saw a significant reset—a roughly 4 percent drop in degree requirements between 2019 and 2020—with the onset of the pandemic.
  • On net, 43 percent of computer support specialist job postings in 2020 still required a bachelor’s, but that was down from more than 44 percent in 2017.

Checking up: Those shifts came at a time when big tech companies were making headlines for dropping degree requirements for top technical roles. And the researchers did a special analysis of data through 2021 looking specifically at some of those companies.

Accenture and IBM stand out as making good on that promise—with all or almost all of their technical roles having lower degree requirements than the national average.

  • For software QA engineers, for example, only 26 percent of Accenture’s and 29 percent of IBM’s posts specified a degree requirement in 2021. The national average was 54 percent, and other top tech firms were much higher.
  • Oracle was 100 percent. And the Big 5—Apple (90 percent), Microsoft (87 percent), Google (84 percent), Amazon (80 percent), and Facebook (66 percent)—also were well above the national average.

Parting thought: Tech roles, in particular computer programmers and support specialists, were among the job categories experiencing the biggest shift. And they saw single-digit changes in the percentage of jobs requiring degrees. So, while many job categories have seen a loosening of requirements, the increase in actual openings that don’t require a bachelor’s appears more limited.

“The demise of the bachelor’s degree has gotten ahead of the facts on the ground,” writes Ben Wildavsky, author of The Great Brain Race and a visiting scholar at the University of Virginia.

It’s now much easier to get a job as a real estate agent, property manager, or insurance agent without a degree. But those are outliers in the analysis. A jobseeker looking to break into computer programming, construction management, HR benefits analysis—or any number of other high-skill roles—is going to find that the majority of jobs still require a bachelor’s.

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