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Breaking the ‘Paper Ceiling’
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Breaking the ‘Paper Ceiling’

In a tight labor market, many U.S. employers are dropping four-year college degree requirements.

Happy Monday! How’s this for a news story to kick off your week? 

“The Black Eyed Peas’ record label is suing the makers of a pooping unicorn toy over the company’s unauthorized parody of ‘My Humps.’” What a beautiful country we live in.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • President Joe Biden’s personal lawyer Bob Bauer announced Saturday night the Department of Justice searched Biden’s home in Wilmington, Delaware, for nearly 13 hours on Friday, collecting materials “within the scope” of its inquiry—including six additional “items with classification markings” dating back to his time as vice president and as a U.S. senator. The search was reportedly conducted by FBI agents while representatives from Biden’s personal legal team and the White House Counsel’s Office were present, but a White House spokesman said a warrant was not issued; Biden’s lawyers reached an agreement with the DOJ to allow the search. That said, a federal judge would have very likely had probable cause to issue a search warrant had Biden’s team not proactively granted investigators access. Several Senate Democrats have expressed concern about Biden’s handling of classified material, and at least two are now publicly supporting the ongoing special counsel investigation into the president.
  • The Justice Department sent a letter last week to Rep. Jim Jordan, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, informing him the agency is unlikely to cooperate with oversight requests from House Republicans involving ongoing investigations. “The Department’s obligation to ‘protect the government’s ability to prosecute fully and fairly’ is vital to the Executive Branch’s core constitutional function to investigate and prosecute criminal matters,” Assistant Attorney General Carlos Uriarte wrote. “The Department’s mission to independently and impartially uphold the rule of law requires us to maintain the integrity of our investigations, prosecutions, and civil actions, and to avoid even a perception that our efforts are influenced by anything but the law and the facts.”
  • Citing officials familiar with the situation, multiple news outlets reported Saturday White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain will step down in the coming weeks and be replaced by Jeff Zients, a management consultant who held multiple economic and budgetary roles in the Obama administration and oversaw the Biden administration’s coronavirus response. Klain has reportedly informed Biden of his plans to leave, but will likely stay on through at least next month’s State of the Union address as Biden prepares to announce his re-election bid.
  • At least 10 people were killed and 10 others injured when a gunman opened fire at a dance studio in the majority Asian-American city of Monterey Park, California, on Saturday night, as many were celebrating the Lunar New Year. Most of the victims were over the age of 50, according to Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna, and authorities found the alleged gunman—a 72-year-old man also of Asian descent—on Sunday, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound inside the van in which he fled. The gunman reportedly attempted to open fire in a second dance studio a few minutes away from the first, but was thwarted and ran away. 
  • The White House announced Friday the Treasury Department will designate Russia’s Wagner Group as a Transnational Criminal Organization, placing additional sanctions on the private paramilitary group that’s been increasingly supplementing Russia’s army in Ukraine and around the world
  • Despite heavy lobbying from the United States and other Western countries, Germany did not budge over the weekend, officially remaining opposed to sending Leopard 2 tanks—or allowing other countries to send their Leopard 2 tanks—to Ukraine. There were some signs of softening, however: The country’s new defense minister said Germany would not prevent other countries from training Ukrainian soldiers on how to operate the Leopard 2 tanks, and Germany’s foreign minister hinted Sunday Berlin may allow Poland to send some of its tanks.
  • U.S. Africa Command announced Friday that—at the request of the Somalian government—U.S. forces conducted a “self-defense” airstrike near the coastal Somali city of Galcad, killing approximately 30 members of the al-Shabaab terrorist group. USAFRICOM said more than 100 al-Shabaab fighters had attacked Somalia’s National Army, precipitating the strike that U.S. officials said resulted in no civilian casualties.
  • The National Association of Realtors reported Friday the median existing-home sales price in the U.S. was $366,900 in December—down from a record $416,000 in June, but up 2.3 percent from December 2021—while sales of previously owned homes declined for the 11th straight month, down 34 percent year-over-year.
  • Amid whispers he was considering retirement, Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia announced Friday he will seek a third term in 2024, boosting Democrats’ odds of hanging onto the seat in what is likely to be a difficult year for the party nationwide. 

Ding Dong! Diplomas Dying?

Graduates at a college graduation ceremony.

In journalism, if something happens once, it’s an anomaly. Twice, a coincidence. Three times, and it’s a trend.

That’s what looks to be happening with states relaxing requirements for government jobs. Last week, Pennsylvania’s newly minted Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro signed an executive order opening 92 percent of the state’s government jobs to people without four-year college degrees. Plus, he asked the state administrator to examine whether the other 8 percent could also drop the degree requirement.

“Every Pennsylvanian should have the freedom to chart their own course and have a real opportunity to succeed,” Shapiro said. “They should get to decide what’s best for them—whether they want to go to college or straight into the workforce—not have that decided for them.”

The executive order affects an estimated 65,000 jobs, a mere sliver of the nearly 160 million in the United States. But Shapiro’s order follows similar steps by Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and now-former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, both Republicans, making this a bipartisan affair. And the governors’ actions, however small, reflect a meaningful shift in the labor market away from blanket degree requirements, particularly for mid-level jobs.

The proportion of job openings that required candidates to have a four-year degree was already on the rise heading into 2008, but it leapt about 10 percent over the course of the Great Recession as a slack jobs market gave employers leeway to demand more qualifications. The shift was most prevalent for so-called middle-skills jobs—neither doctors nor line cooks, but business managers, paralegals, or other professions that often require training beyond a high school diploma but don’t universally necessitate a bachelor’s degree. A recent report from Harvard Business School labor economist Joseph Fuller et al. found employers began relying on degrees as proxies for a range of skills including communication, taking feedback, and computer literacy.

The change created a credentials gap between new job listings and existing employees. A 2017 analysis by HBS researchers, for example, found 67 percent of “production supervisor” job listings in 2015 required a college degree, but only 16 percent of currently employed production supervisors had one. The shift also left a gap between job requirements and people qualified on paper to fill them. According to nonprofit Opportunity at Work, about 70 percent of new job listings require a bachelor’s degree, while fewer than 50 percent of American workers hold such a degree—a mismatch the organization describes as “the paper ceiling.” 

This phenomenon also hurts employers. According to the HBS report, middle-skill job listings requiring college graduates not only took longer to fill, but once hired, college graduates were less engaged than peers without a four-year degree, and left companies faster—despite earning salaries up to 30 percent higher.

COVID-19 and the ensuing red-hot labor market have certainly played a role in undoing the last decade of degree inflation. At about 3.5 percent, today’s unemployment rate is hovering near record lows, forcing employers to widen the net if they want to fill vacancies. That’s what drove Maryland’s move. Last January the state’s Department of Legislative Services reported 8,689 empty executive branch positions, the highest number since at least the Great Recession. So Hogan in March opened about half the state’s government jobs—in sectors like information technology, customer service, and administration—to candidates without four-year degrees but with relevant work experience or alternative education credentials like an associate’s degree or training certificate. A similar—albeit small—shift was playing out nationally: The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia reported last January the proportion of middle-skill job listings asking for a four-year degree had fallen 4 percent from the first quarter of 2020 to the second quarter of 2021, opening up 700,000 jobs to a wider applicant pool.

Local governments have also loosened their educational prerequisites. Boulder County, Colorado, dropped its four-year requirement in 2019, and county Human Resources Director Julia Larsen told Pew the county hired 13 percent more people without degrees in 2021 than in 2019. The private sector has taken similar steps, with IBM, Google, Facebook, and other tech companies opening up a number of high-paying jobs to people with relevant experience but without a bachelor’s degree. Fuller’s report found only 9 percent of Accenture’s “computer support specialist” openings required a bachelor’s degree in 2021—down from 46 percent in 2017.

This shift doesn’t mean hospitals are going to drop degree requirements for, say, neurosurgeons, and that’s probably for the best. But even moderate changes to the labor market will affect a lot of workers, and these adjustments will likely continue well beyond today’s tight labor market: Fuller et al. found nearly two-thirds of the middle- and high-skill jobs for which employers loosened degree requirements in recent years were undergoing “structural resets,” compared to about 30 percent of jobs where employers were responding to short-term job market pressures. If this trend continues, U.S. workers without bachelor’s degrees—about 62 percent of the country—will have access to 1.4 million more job opportunities by 2027.

Hogan made the case for his changes in an October op-ed, noting the often exorbitant costs of higher education. “A patriotic and skilled workforce, unencumbered by unbearable levels of debt, will allow the U.S. to compete with China and other adversaries while defending the values of the American founding,” he wrote. “It’s time to debunk the fiction that a prestigious degree is the only key to the American dream.” Democrats’ focus on racial equity also gives them reason to line up behind the shift, as black and Hispanic Americans are much less likely to have a four-year degree than white and Asian Americans. Wes Moore, Maryland’s new Democratic governor, reportedly plans to keep Hogan’s change in place.

Worth Your Time

  • Believe it or not, you can’t always count on autocratic dictatorships to report accurate data. We’ve noted this before, but a new paper from Luis Martínez at the University of Chicago attempts to quantify just how much various countries are overstating their economic activity—using light. “Satellite images can capture the amount of nighttime light a country produces, and it turns out to be a pretty reliable guide to economic growth,” Josh Zumbrun writes in a Wall Street Journal article about Martínez’s research. “As [Martínez] studied the data on lights at night, a clear pattern emerged. GDP and nighttime lights move closely together, in free and democratic countries—as classified by the U.S. nonprofit Freedom House, which tracks the global state of democracy and receives funding from the U.S. State Department. But in many unfree countries, dictatorships and autocracies, the government reported the economy growing much faster than nighttime light. On average, these autocratic governments were reporting annual GDP growth that was approximately 35% higher than would be expected from the modest growth of their night lights.”
  • Crisis pregnancy centers and maternity homes are set to play an even more important role in the post-Roe world. In a piece for The Pillar, Michelle La Rosa shines a spotlight on one such center—Heather’s House, in Chicago—and all it does for women in the community. “In 2019, [Gina] discovered she was pregnant with her second child. At the time, she was homeless, and running from the law. She was addicted to drugs and alcohol,” La Rosa writes. When her mom suggested she call a 1-800 number for help, Gina didn’t expect much. “But she felt like she was out of options, so she gave it a try. She was connected with Aid for Women— a Catholic network of five pregnancy centers and two maternity homes in the Chicago area. Shortly thereafter, Gina moved into Heather’s House, one of the two maternity homes run by Aid for Women. The staff at the house helped her prepare for her baby. They helped her stay clean and sober. They paid for her first year of school. They connected her with resources. Today, Gina and her daughter live in a two bedroom apartment in a Chicago suburb. Her older son is in the process of returning to live with her. Gina is working full time and is studying to be a sonographer. She wants to do ultrasounds at Aid for Women’s pregnancy centers.”

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Toeing the Company Line

  • House Republicans know they want to use the coming debt ceiling fight to rein in spending, but don’t ask for any specifics! In Friday’s Uphill (🔒), Haley takes a look at the different approaches lawmakers are bringing to the impending brawl.
  • And if you have any questions for Haley—about her time as CNN’s House producer, her favorite science fiction books, or her theory on Lazarus in the gospel of John—be sure to drop them in the comments of January’s Monthly Mailbag (🔒). She’ll answer as many as she can in the next few weeks!
  • Politicians are, as a rule, not very good at knowing when it’s time to give up the ghost, Chris notes in his latest Stirewaltisms (🔒). That’s what makes New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s decision to step down so unique. “A country too weak to survive without one specific leader in charge is dead already,” he writes. “Leaders who stay too long bring weakness, not strength.”
  • Does Nikki Haley have a shot at the GOP nomination in 2024? Nikki Haley seems to think so. Nick, however, isn’t so sure. “For Haley to become Not Trump, she’d need to outpoll DeSantis and a dozen other candidates,” he writes in his latest Boiling Frogs (🔒). “Unlikely.”
  • Two G-Files in one day? That’s nothing for Jonah, who wrote about the benefits of partisanship (🔒) in the morning and penned a pox upon Portland in the evening. “These one-party cities have their own form of demosclerosis, in which activists and agencies that benefit from the problems they create get to set the agenda,” he writes after a few days in Oregon. “It would be smart for some progressive to run against the Democratic machine. They could say all the right things about the environment, racial justice, etc. But they could also say we need more cops.”
  • On the latest episode of The Dispatch Podcast, Esther interviews Scott Kennedy of the Center for Strategic and International Studies about China’s declining population. Is the country’s former one-child policy solely to blame? How will the trend affect the country’s economic outlook?
  • In his *sniff* final Sunday French Press, David thanks readers for following along before discussing the decline of American moral leadership and how it made a character like Rep. George Santos inevitable. “To the extent that a person influences a party and a nation, the direction of that influence should flow towards truth, towards courage, towards competence,” he writes. “Make lies exhausting. Make incompetence countercultural. Make cowardice shameful again.”
  • On the site over the weekend, Alec pans the new Velma reboot on HBO Max, Jon Hersey reviews Timothy Sandefur’s new book on the history of the libertarian movement, and Charlotte dives into South Korea’s nuclear debate. “South Korea has begun to publicly discuss what was once unthinkable: pursuing its own nuclear weapons program,” she writes. “Such a move is unlikely to deter North Korea—but it could alienate Seoul’s most important ally.”
  • On the site today, Chris looks at the possible electoral consequences of post-Roe abortion policies going into 2024 and Patrick T. Brown floats ideas for how to make childbirth affordable to more Americans. 

Let Us Know

What percentage of jobs in the United States do you think actually require a four-year bachelor’s degree, as opposed to a technical degree or on-the-job training? Do you hope the trend we outlined above continues?

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.