Thanks to a Horrible Economy a lot of Starbucks Baristas have a BA Degree

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 30th, 2013

Week in Review

President Obama is always talking about sending more kids to college.  And investing into the future.  But as it turns out a lot of kids are going to college.  Taking on enormous amounts of student loan debt.  But they’re not graduating with a useful degree that they can use to help build that future (see Why a BA is Now a Ticket to A Job in a Coffee Shop by Megan McArdle posted 3/27/2013 on The Daily Beast).

Too many college kids are living in Mom’s basement, or working at Starbucks…A while back, I found myself talking to a professor whose school has a number of impressive-sounding graduate programs that were originally conceived as add-ons for a professional degree in law or medicine or business.  They are now attracting a number of students who just go for the standalone degree.  He didn’t understand what the career path was for these kids, and he wasn’t sure that they did either.

“It sounds good, so they can persuade their parents to pay for it,” he said, a touch guiltily…

Skilled workers with higher degrees are increasingly ending up in lower-skilled jobs that don’t really require a degree–and in the process, they’re pushing unskilled workers out of the labor force altogether…

I made quite a splash with a Newsweek story arguing that we may be overinvesting in college.  There were basically three parts to this argument: first, that a lot of college attendance is signalling activity rather than skill acquisition; second, that more students with BAs are ending up in jobs that don’t require them; and third, that a substantial number of kids don’t finish, washing out with a lot of debt and no commensurate earning power to pay it…

So while college graduates are having trouble getting college-style jobs, the unskilled workers are doing even worse.  This is not necessarily evidence that the college degree is producing the wage–it might be that folks capable of getting into college would be able to get that barista job even if they didn’t go…

It suggests that we’re pushing more and more people into (more and more expensive) college programs, even as the number of jobs in which they can use those skills has declined.  A growing number of students may be in a credentialling arms race to gain access to routine service jobs.  Or maybe the productivity of our nation’s wait staff is spiking as more skilled workers flood into these jobs.

Unfortunately, there’s no obvious policy response to this.  It’s easier to create more college educated workers through government policy than it is to create jobs for them.  It’s not even obvious what the personal response should be–except that if you’re planning to major in English, you should maybe see if you can’t get a job at Starbucks instead.

A lot of kids go to college for the fun.  And because it’s the fun that they care about they take the easy degree programs.  Like English.  Because studying physics, engineering, medicine, etc., would just take too much time away from having a good time.  This is why they can’t get a job with their degree.  Because their degree is useless in the high-tech future that the president says we must invest in.

This is why the high-tech companies are hiring Asians and Indians.  Because they study hard in school.  Getting degrees in the hard programs.  Because they grow up with the values of their parents.  They work hard and are willing to wait to enjoy the fruits of all their labors.  Unlike American kids that can’t wait for anything.  Especially when it comes to having a good time.

When the economy is booming again and good workers are hard to find businesses will be hiring people with BAs again.  Maybe even those people earning degrees in economics.  Like those who are advising the government on how to create jobs.  But until the economy recovers from the worst recession since the Great Depression they will only hire those with the more valuable degrees.  The useful degrees.  The degrees that can actually help bring their goods and service to market.  And if their business is developing new hardware for the Internet or communication satellites knowing what a split infinitive just isn’t a useful skill.


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