Times are changing; and so are schools, jobs, and the correlation they have between learning and earning. A college degree used to be the main requirement for an individual to start a successful and cognitively-satisfying career. We pay tuition for higher education because we look at it as an investment in ourselves, assuming it will provide us with higher wages and thought-provoking work. This proved to be true for a number of decades, but there are several glaring trends that now say otherwise. Being aware of these trends can help you stay ahead of your competition and start future-proofing your career.
First, let’s talk about higher education and how more Americans have college degrees than ever before. The percentage rose from 13.4% in 1974 to 35% in 2018! Every decade since the ’70s, there has been a consistent increase of 4-6% of the population becoming college graduates. The same can’t be said for starting salaries. The average starting salary in 1974 was $50,691. By 2015, that number had actually decreased to $50,219! Crazy, right? While starting salaries have virtually remained the same, you’re now competing with almost triple the amount of college graduates as someone in 1974. And even though we are talking about starting salaries, it’s important to consider how this is going to affect your long-term career.
In 2013, three economists published a research paper called The Great Reversal in the Demand for Skill and Cognitive Tasks. The authors’ hopes were to prove the causes behind the extremely high unemployment rate, which was at 7.9% in January 2013. They attributed the 2008 financial crisis as playing a part but also argued that the college-educated workforce was pushing the non-college-educated workforce towards unemployment. They proved this by showing a rise and decline in the demand for skill-based jobs and cognitive task occupations. They categorized occupations by:
The authors attributed technological advancements as the paramount influencer for the rise and decline of the demand for cognitive task occupations. As we entered into the technology age in the early 1980s, industry leaders needed to design and build an infrastructure that would support this new industry. This created a need in the workforce for highly educated individuals and we saw a significant increase in the employment rate for cognitive task occupations in the ’80s and ’90s. Once this new infrastructure was solidly in place, the ’00s saw a plateau in this employment rate as cognitive tasks became more and more automated. Essentially, the demand for cognitive tasks grew faster than the supply of the degree-holding, educated workers who could perform the cognitive tasks in the ’80s and ’90s. Then, the supply remained constant while the demand decreased in the ’00s. This correlated with a substantial increase in the median wage of workers performing these tasks in the ’80s and ’90s and a decline in their median wage as the demand decreased and educated workers began taking jobs previously held by a less educated workforce in the ’00s. As you might have already guessed, the non-degree workforce had an inverse effect.
I believe we are experiencing another ebb and flow in what our workforce is demanding due to innovative technological changes. Machine Learning and AI (Artificial Intelligence) are standing at the forefront of the technology sector. Some experts claim these technologies will wipe out most manual and routine occupations, while others say they will open up doorways for new opportunities. Either way, the key to survival is adaptation. Being able to change and acquire new skills that match the needs of your environment is the key to success in this ever-evolving world. However, the way you acquire new skills has continued to evolve as well. This doesn’t necessarily mean you must return to school for another four-year degree. Professional associations provide certifications, micro-credentialing, and other programs that can help you grow your skillset on your own schedule, and typically for a lower price. Stay tuned for part two, where we take a deeper dive into automation, machine learning, and AI; and what steps we can start taking to future-proof our careers in The Lifelong Learner’s Guide to Success: Future-Proofing Your Career, Part Two.