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The projected shortfall between the demand for workers with university degrees and the supply of Americans who have them continues to widen, according to new research from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce.

In an update of its widely cited estimates last released in 2010, the center says that, at current graduation rates, there will be five million more jobs requiring employees with university degrees by 2020 than people to fill them.

That’s up significantly from the gap projected just three years ago, when the center predicted that the nation would fall short by three million college-educated workers by 2018.

Skills gap
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It portends “a major shortage of college-educated workers, especially as baby boomers retire,” says Anthony Carnevale, the center’s director.

The 2010 report helped propelled policymakers to push for more students to enroll in, and graduate from, college.

But a growing chorus of economists and sociologists is expressing skepticism that the situation is as dire as suggested.

The Georgetown center says that, by 2020, two-thirds of all jobs will require postsecondary education of some sort. More specifically, of 55 million projected new and available jobs, seven million will require an associate’s degree, 13 million a bachelor’s degree, and six million a graduate degree.

That comes out to 23.6 percent of the workforce needing bachelor’s degrees and 10.9 percent needing graduate degrees, says Robert Lerman, an economist and fellow at the Urban Institute. Those are almost the same, in both cases, as the proportion of 30- to 34-year-olds—22.8 percent and 11.9 percent, respectively—who have such credentials now, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Are we producing enough B.A.s and graduate degrees? The answer to that seems to be largely yes,” says Lerman. “I’m not saying that if we produced more it would be a bad thing for the economy. I’m just saying it seems that we’re doing okay.”

The projections also say that 12.7 percent of workers will need associate’s degrees, more than the 10.8 percent who have them currently.

“It doesn’t look as if we’re that out of balance, except in the middle,” says Lerman, who is also a professor of economics at American University.

But he says that other forms of education, such as apprenticeships, could help make up the difference in associate’s degree-level jobs, and that not every worker needs to go to college.

In fact, nearly half of graduates from four-year universities said in a survey last month by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company that they didn’t think they actually needed four-year degrees to do their jobs.

“What level of education is required to do your work, and what level do people have? Both workers and employers are adaptable, and as long as the shortages and skills gaps are not too dramatic—and the ones we have really aren’t—that adaptability means we can continue to expand the economy,” says Michael Handel, a sociologist at Northeastern University who focuses on workforce issues and is a consultant to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD.

On the other hand, a new OECD report says that unemployment in member countries is three times higher among people without postsecondary educations than for people with degrees, and that the difference in earnings between the highly educated and the less well educated has increased since 2008 from 75 percent to 90 percent.

Critics point out that there have long been predictions of a critical mismatch between the number of jobs requiring degrees and the number of workers who have them.

The Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, or SCANS, appointed by the U.S. secretary of labor in 1990, said that half of Americans lacked the educations they needed to find and hold a good job, for instance. A National Academy of Sciences report in 2005 called Rising Above the Gathering Storm reached a similar conclusion.

“It keeps going through these cycles,” says Hal Salzman, a professor of planning and public policy at Rutgers. “And every time it’s raised, there are serious studies that are done, and they say, ‘We can’t find the shortage.’”

The Georgetown center’s numbers aren’t as much at issue as some of the report’s assumptions, according to people who have reviewed it.

“The short answer is, nothing is simple, so sadly distrust almost all simple accounts,” Handel says. “It all tends to get a bit murky at the edges.

For one thing, he and others say, focusing on postsecondary degrees as prerequisites for so many jobs assumes that college is solely about workforce training.  And for so-called middle skills positions, where critics concede there really is a gap, college is not the only means of turning out employees who are qualified.

“What we need is good high-quality alternatives,” says Salzman. “College is not for everybody, and it’s really not an efficient way to do a lot of workplace preparation, if that’s our goal. Workforce training has not traditionally been the mission of the college, and we haven’t done a good job of pushing back on this.”

Yet employers, he says, have come to demand it.

“Companies are now saying, ‘We want people ready to go from Day 1,’ and therefore somebody else other than the employer needs to provide that training,” Salzman says. “That’s a dramatic change that’s happened over the last 15 years, or even the last five years. When they say that colleges are not providing the skills they need, the workers they need, what that criticism reflects is the retreat from training by firms and the attempt to shift responsibility.”

He says: “I’m not saying colleges aren’t failing in a lot of ways, but that particular one may not be among them.”

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