Credential Creep

Before my son graduated from college, we talked about his job search. I, font of wisdom that I am, told him about what it was like when I was young. He, more attuned to the current world, told me that those days died with the horse an buggy. No longer did people knock on doors, send letters directly to the head of Human Resources or the CEO, and lay out why they wanted, and were qualified for, a job in their enterprise. Those days were gone, indeed.

He showed me the online job sites and the problem he was looking at. He came onto the job market with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from MIT. Not too shabby, right? Wrong. Job after entry level job, they wanted candidates with master’s degrees to do work that barely required a degree at all.

And lest one think he could somehow use his credential from the best engineering school on Mass Ave. to circumvent the requirement, the algos made sure that wasn’t going to happen. If the job listing required a master’s degree, then his resume would never be seen by a human as the first level of vetting was done by computer and his wouldn’t make the cut. He might have been the best damn applicant for the job, but if he couldn’t get his resume in front of a hiring decision maker, he didn’t exist.

Is this about to change?

In one of the richest nations on earth, the path to prosperity has narrowed significantly in recent decades — especially for those without a college education. More than 62 percent of Americans ages 25 and up do not hold bachelor’s degrees, and the earnings gap between those with a college education and those without one has never been wider. In 2021, the difference between the median earnings of younger workers with bachelor’s degrees and workers of the same age with high-school diplomas only was $22,000 — the largest since the Federal Reserve Bank of New York began tracking earnings in 1990. That’s happening even as the cost of college spirals upward, putting it out of reach for many. This has fueled anxiety, bitterness and a sense of alienation among the millions who see themselves as shut out of an economy that does not value them.

Rarely does the opening paragraph of an editorial say as much and as little as this one. To conflate the earnings gap between high school drop-outs and plumbers, on the one hand, and engineers and grievance studies majors, on the other, is reductio ad absurdum. To add on top that college costs are spiraling upward, as if this was some surprisingly new phenomenon, is laughable.


Yet, there’s no mention of how the primary raison d’etre of universities is no longer education, but diversity, equity and inclusion such that the poor and marginalized can amass student debt just like the middle class even if they lack the skills or abilities necessary to earn a degree, which is itself an outmoded concept since no one flunks out anymore as that would make them sad.

And yet, the New York Times has a point.

With an executive order issued on Jan. 18, his first full day as governor, Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania used one of them: He eliminated the requirement of a four-year college degree for the vast majority of jobs in the state government, a change similar to one that Maryland and Utah made last year. This demonstrates both good policy and good leadership, representing a concrete change in hiring philosophy that stops reducing people to a credential and conveys that everyone — college-educated or not — has experience and worth that employers should consider. It is a step — and a mind-set — that other leaders should consider as well.

Key here, although unmentioned by the Times, is that Shapiro eliminated the “requirement,” meaning that it may still be desired, and may still be the distinction between getting a job or not, but it will not preclude the possibility. There are a great many state government jobs that require no specialized education. Lieutenant governor, for instance.

But the missing piece to the puzzle is whether a job requires specialized education, or whether it’s just knee-jerk “edumacation is good” and there are plenty of unemployed people with master’s degrees sitting around out there looking for work that we can use that credential as the cutoff in vetting the thousand resumes that are submitted via a website. What about cops, where college degrees were not meant to vet job skills, but to eliminate high school brutes from being trusted with a gun?

The decision was driven in part by the realities of a tight labor market. Unemployment in Pennsylvania is 3.9 percent — close to the national average of 3.5 percent — and lower than it was before the pandemic. Public and private employers have been struggling to find qualified applicants, prompting a re-evaluation of hiring criteria. As Mr. Shapiro’s order notes, “In the modern labor market, applicants gain knowledge, skills and abilities through a variety of means, including apprenticeships, on-the-job training, military training and trade schools.”

Is unemployment really that low? A couple years ago, so many people were unemployed that the government had to send out checks to keep them alive. But unemployment is a funny thing. Most of its movement is at the bottom of the spectrum, a warehouse job here, a barista there. There has been no mass demand for chief financial officers. And layoffs at Google and Facebook have caused the bottom to fall out of high paying computer science jobs.

Sure, there are skills learned along the way, outside college that make a person capable of doing a job that previously required a degree without good reason. And in many instances, the person who learned leadership on the battlefield is going to make a far better manager than the snot-nosed activist from Vassar. But this is one piece of a highly dysfunctional puzzle that addresses one problem while ignoring a hundred others. And when the algo trashes the applications of a thousand otherwise decent applicants without degrees because there’s no other way to vet applicants at scale, who will be blamed for the failure?

13 thoughts on “Credential Creep

  1. Hal

    FWIW, I heard a woman rapper say, “Feminism is my second favorite ‘eff’ word”.

    I’d have to think about it, but I don’t think it would make my “Top 10”. Freedom, friendship, French fries, fritatta, fellatio, fondue, fried rice, foreplay, folk music, fireworks, Ferrari, “fuggetabodid”… nope not even in the Top 10. YMMV

  2. RCJP

    New lieutenants in the Army find themselves in the unique situation of being better “educated” and slightly better paid than their enlisted (blue collar) counterparts, but the latter’s experience and job specific training make them the mentor and expert.

  3. orthodoc

    At various points in history, holding an academic degree was a signal of various things: of erudition, wealth and leisure, specific knowledge, conscientiousness, etc. These days, other things may need to be conveyed. For example, if one of the true requirements for a given job is “a willingness to eat shit and follow directions regardless of how inane”, a good way to signal fitness is obtaining a worthless and expensive masters degree. This circles back to the prior discussion here about organic chem for medical school. An A in Orgo does signify the “thank you sir, may I have another” attitude that is conducive to jumping over the next hurdle.
    (You did not share the conclusion of your son’s story, but I would hope and expect that his experience with metallurgy–the brass rat and the fencer’s steel– had ensured that he ended up in a good place. This may be a way of saying I am as lazy as the next evaluator, but I value different things)

  4. Grum

    Been like that for a while now. Back in the mid 80’s, it was already the case that you needed a degree to even get a sniff of lab work that a few years earlier would have been perfectly do-able with a half-decent high school education (as you left-pondians would call it). Having a BSc in such a subject, I jumped sideways to writing software. Back then, you could get into that if you even showed the slightest bit interest in having a go. I worked alongside people who had previously been secretaries and receptionists, before changing lanes, and were perfectly capable of learning on the job.
    Now you need not only a degree or two, but 5 years experience of things that have only been around for three years (at least that’s the joke).
    I’m knocking on a bit now, and am still gainfully employed at a decent salary, but a big worry is how we are going to replace people retiring. Placing an impossible burden on young people wanting to get hired in the first place is going to bite us hard in the not too distant future; depriving them of mentoring from people who have been in the trenches for years and denying them a first step on the ladder that used to be there. It’s nuts! I’ve been trying to make the point you made so eloquently ATL for years.
    Denying youngsters starting out the opportunities we enjoyed is an, ultimately, dumb idea.

  5. James K

    Occam’s razor: envy. HR people don’t like anyone making more money than them with less degrees or none. Hiring managers don’t know or care whether there should be 20 or 40 resumes in front of them. Exception is a famous successful business founder or “rain maker.”

  6. rxc

    I first saw credentialism in action about 35 years ago, when I worked for the government, and had to deal with a legal proceeding that required testimony from an engineer who had approved something. The opposing party questioned him about his qualifications to testify – what kind of courses had he taken, did he have a degree or certifications on the subject, had he received any public acknowledgements of his competence? His response was that he did not TAKE courses in the subject material – he GAVE those courses, because he was the one who had conceived/invented the subject matter. End of qualification questions.

    30 years later, I was involved in fighting a building permit application, and decided to try to represent myself, but with the help of a professional in the field. I provided my CV, with lists of all the projects where I had worked on the subject matter, but the opposing party said I was unqualified as an expert witness, and all of my presentation could not be presented. Since I didn’t have a lawyer, either (stupid me) , I did not know how to object, and my testimony was tossed. Luckily, though, my licensed expert had prepared a report that supported everything I was going to say, and I actually won the case. My paid expert was amazed at the amount of (correct) detail I put into my presentation – he only found two issues I had missed.

    Credentialism has led to lots of testimony from people who have no idea about what they are talking about, but have lots of certificates that attest that they do. Some day they are going to build a bridge that is going to collapse. The smartest people are rarely those with the largest stack of certificates.

  7. cthulhu

    I know this column isn’t about your son, but since you provided the anecdote, I confess I’m surprised – the large aerospace company I work for hires lots of mechanical engineers straight out of school with bachelor’s degrees, and has done so for many years. Many of those positions may state an MS is preferred, but over the last decade I’ve mentored several fresh-out-of-school BS holders.

    That said, and relevant to the broader topic of the post, I think a lot more engineers go for the MS these days, and from talking to our college interns, the schools appear to be actively pushing that – the undergrad program seems much more general than when I got my BSAE lo these many years ago, and students don’t seem to get a lot of the training that really separates the ME from the AE from the EE until graduate school. After getting to spend a summer doing real stuff, the interns I was working with seemed unhappy to be going back to a program that delayed this kind of gratification until grad school.

    Overall, I’m happy to see the decline of credentialism, but I’m suspicious of the motivation behind the decline – if it ends up being a stalking horse for furthering quotas over ability, we will have traded one false god for another, more malevolent one. Or in the immortal words of Howard Phillips Lovecraft…DO NOT CALL UP THAT WHICH YOU CANNOT PUT DOWN.

  8. Neil

    Credentialism has come to play an important role in the software industry, as it’s become quite common in that industry to seek talent from around the world. Credentials provide significantly easier routes to hiring and bringing those folks to the United States, and advanced degrees are a staple because of immigration policies that recognize them. Maybe an immigration lawyer could speak to the changing requirements of labor certs and the consequences for credential inflation. I think there are significant variations by industry, as aerospace and other industries with a national security aspect have other constraints that keep out foreign workers, and consequently do not suffer credential inflation to the same degree.

  9. B. McLeod

    Sometimes these irrationally inflated requirements must result in no “acceptable” applicants. I have seen several governmental positions over the last decade that were posted with bizarrely unrealistic “requirements” but ultimately filled with candidates who didn’t meet them.

    1. L. Phillips

      That is often done to weed out “outside” applicants so someone internal the institution has already picked can be moved into the position. The “bizarre” requirements disappear in a final paragraph of the position announcements that reads something like “and all other education or experience that may be deemed acceptable”.

  10. James John

    Maybe Josh Shapiro in Pennsylvania did not really make such a big change. From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “The order flatly declares that 92% of all executive branch jobs don’t require four-year degrees, though in reality, that is not a major change for the state government; the vast majority of state jobs have never required bachelor’s degrees”. And “As of last July, Wolf administration figures showed that of roughly 2,600 job titles across the 72,000-person executive branch workforce, just 135 included a bachelor’s degree in their minimum experience and training requirements….And in 101 of those job titles, managers could accept an “equivalent combination of experience and training” as substitute for a degree…At that time there were only 270 people working in the 34 job titles, such as counselors or engineers, for which equivalent experience and training cannot be substituted for a bachelor’s degree”.

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