Boots & Sabers

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Everything but tech support.

0606, 24 Nov 15

Overeducated and underemployed

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here it is:

There is a growing chasm between the skills that people need to succeed in modern American society and the skills we are emphasizing in our system of education and our culture. It is a chasm that bodes ill for the future of our country and for our children.

A quick scan of the open job postings on any given day reveals some companies searching desperately for workers, but many of those job postings have been open for a long time. The hardest jobs to fill continue to be engineers, technical workers and virtually every skilled trade. While unemployment is low, underemployment is still high, and yet these goodpaying jobs continue to go unfilled. Why?

The primary reason is that we, as a culture, have devalued those jobs. We have benefited from the hard work of our forbearers and enjoy the most leisurely and advanced society in the history of the world. For the vast majority of Americans, our necessities are relatively easy to provide. This allows us time to focus our attention on our leisure activities and indulge our creative impulses.

This is not a bad thing and is certainly nothing for which Americans should apologize. We should be proud that our civilization has advanced so far that we are debating the relative merits of the iPhone versus the Samsung Galaxy instead of whether we should boil the water another 10 minutes before drinking it.

But through that advancement, we have devalued many of the jobs that make our advanced society possible, and in doing so we have closed the doors of many great opportunities for our children. We see this cultural trend manifest itself in colleges.

Simply put, far too many kids are spending money they don’t have to get degrees they don’t need for jobs that don’t exist. A recent survey by the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Letters and Sciences showed that more than a third of their graduates were working in jobs that did not require their degree, and 10 percent of them said their degrees were “irrelevant” to their jobs. Almost half of those surveyed regretted getting their degrees.

The problem is that there are very few jobs for people with degrees in Scandinavian studies, Latin, gender and women’s studies, comparative literature, etc. There is absolutely nothing wrong with studying those subjects, but most graduates from those programs will only find employment teaching others the same topic in an educational pyramid scheme. Such intellectual aerobics are useful, but have historically been the indulgences of rich folks who do not need to worry about gainful employment after graduation.

Meanwhile, while our universities are churning out highly educated people whose degrees have little value in the job market, there are great jobs being left unfilled. Culturally, parents want to brag to their friends on Facebook about how little Jimmy got accepted to Marquette far more than they want to say little Sally just started an apprenticeship to become a plumber. Yet the odds are that Sally will more likely be employed, better paid and debt-free in 10 years compared to Jimmy.

Additionally, as the education committee from the West Bend Chamber of Commerce recently revealed, the skills that are most valuable to employers have little to do with formal education. Punctuality, respect, manners, clean attire, work ethic and other soft skills were more important to employers than knowing specific subject matter. Employers can teach specific skills. They cannot teach people to show up on time and work hard.

Our society can use a few experts in medieval tapestries, but it needs far more skilled people who work hard at things we need. And some of our kids are better served learning to be a great crane operator than getting a master’s degree in comparative literature and folklore studies.



0606, 24 November 2015


  1. Mark Maley

    Actually , in West Bend local government
    You can get a fine job by going to college
    But lying about actually ever graduating .

    So much for your theory that you can’t study what you want and still get the job of your dreams

    Just lie to your future employers and they’ll cut you the slack you need to build your career from there .

  2. oldbaldy

    “the skills that are most valuable to employers have little to do with formal education. Punctuality, respect, manners, clean attire, work ethic and other soft skills were more important to employers than knowing specific subject matter”.

    Really? Owen, are those the qualities you look for in an oncologist? a plumber? A landscaper? It is sure obvious you have never had to hire staff for technical or professional positions.

  3. The Bystander

    It’s interesting that Milenial Generation Conservatives like Owen are the first group in the nations history to consider a well educated work force a problem for society. It’s to bad that at the same time they havn’t suggested enhancing apprenticeships and an technical school support to assist in developing those job opportunites. Instead the conservatives take public dollars to prop up private religious schools for their children.

  4. Owen


    Actually, i hire both technical staff and managers of that staff. Yes, knowledge and training is important in the specific subject area, but only if it is on top of a foundation of soft skills like punctuality, work ethic, etc. It doesn’t matter how good a tech is if he doesn’t show up or ticks off my customers. But if a person has those basic attributes and shows some aptitude, I can train the subject matter.


    First, I am solidly a Gen Xer. Second, I never said that a well educated workforce was a problem. It is a great thing. But it makes no sense for a kid to go $50k in debt for a doctorate in art history to work as a shift manager at Starbucks. My point is that people should make sensible choices about the education they choose with an eye to what will happen after graduation.

    This is actually an issue that is on my mind quite a bit. Culturally, I was brought up to believe in higher education – and I do. Both of my parents were college graduates and my Mom had her Masters. I, myself, have earned my BA and MBA. But honestly… I didn’t need the MBA for my chosen career. I did it because it was a life goal. As I look at my kids who are in college and nearing college age, is it worth it? Well, it depends… despite my cultural preconceptions, the fact is that the value of most college degrees has declined as the price for those degrees has increased. For some professions, it is an absolute necessity. But for others – particularly in some of the technology fields, trades, etc. it holds little value.

  5. oldbaldy


    I’m glad you qualified your answer, but you still show a tendency to disregard the college education. You may not need an MBA for whatever you chose as a career path, but it may be required for others. And advanced degrees are certainly required in law, medicine,etc., and is greatly encouraged in many others.

    I agree that it makes no sense for a kid to go way into debt getting a degree in a subject with little employment opportunity. But that same Art History major with a PhD could be teaching at Harvard or Stanford. Where would you draw the line? But how did they get so far in debt? Little guidance from parents? Overly optimistic? Both our kids went to UW and came out with little or no debt. They applied for scholarships, worked, never went to FL on spring break. Don’t blame the educational system for the debt, look at the individual and decisions made while getting that education.

    What trades need a BS or BA?

  6. Owen

    I think we’re advocating the same thing, OB. Education is great and college can be a great – and necessary – choice for a lot of people. But as a culture, we have tilted too far in the direction of “everyone must go to college” at the expense of devaluing careers and choices that don’t require it. The result is a lot of unhappy college grads who are up to debt to their ears and can’t get a job while many great career jobs go unfilled. While college is a great choice for many kids, too often kids are pushed that direction for the vanity of their parents instead of the best interests of the kid.

  7. oldbaldy


    it sounds like were are on similar wavelengths. But I still don’t see many on the far right acknowledging that the issue, “everyone must go to college”, is not the fault primarily of the higher education system, but of other sources like the parental vanity you mention. What I do see are folks like Vos and Nass, and our own governor trying their best to permanently damage one of, if not the best University system in the country. That is a shame beyond comprehension.

  8. Steve Austin

    The issue isn’t that higher ed isn’t good. The issue is that the price and thus cost benefit of college has gotten out of hand. This is mainly due to massive govt. subsidies, loans and grants that have been developed the last 30 years. Costs of higher ed rise vastly over the rate of inflation. Same problem the healthcare industry has, but at least there we get life saving advancements every month.

    I agree with the concept that more of these kids need to go to welding school but with my usual caveat. What happens when your employer or plant inevitably get outsourced or moved overseas as industry is allowed to consolidate into a few mega global employers? “Labor” has proven to be a commodity where jobs are allowed to run to the lowest cost location in the world. And that is not here.

  9. Reaper

    There is nothing wrong with going to college if you have a reason to go.
    Ie To be a doctor. But to go for the sake of going is a waste.
    I am a Pro-e designer, I would have 3 job offers in a day if I wanted a different job. My daughter has a business degree and has been looking for a decent paying job for a year.

  10. John Foust

    “We, as a culture, have devalued those jobs.” You’re going to blame the workers and not even point a finger at employers?

    Simple free market solution for all those open positions: Raise the offered wage and/or benefits to make them more attractive to the labor pool. Why isn’t that in more editorials?

    Same for welders. There are lots of people who have been trained as welders. The tech schools churn ’em out. The problem is, people trained as welders decide they don’t want to be welders any more, due to the working conditions, the options for advancement, or because they find another job that pays better.

    Industry is always looking for entry-level welders. They like not having to train their own workers. Is that subsidy to industry a greater crime than educating a few more kids in Latin?

  11. John Foust

    Owen – I’m genuinely curious. Why didn’t you consider that employers could raise their offer?

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