The college degree is becoming the new high school diploma: the new minimum requirement, albeit an expensive one, for getting even the lowest-level job.
That's the telling opening sentence from a front-page New York Times story last week profiling an Atlanta law firm that decided any job at the firm — from file clerk to courier — now requires a person with a college degree.
In this still-high-unemployment economy, employers realize they can be extremely picky.
This winnowing of the herd by education is under way in the Tampa Bay area, too. It may be just the beginning of a hiring trend to ripple across the business and education communities. Here are five likely impacts:
1. Colleges and universities are quickly facing new demands for accountability by students, employers, government and local communities to produce graduates with skills that make them competitive for decent-paying jobs and — dare I say it? — even careers. Nobody wants a bulging generation of recent grads saddled with $25,000, $40,000 and sometimes $100,000 in student loans unable to find work that pays more than $10 an hour.
Now there's a big national push for colleges to produce data that show how much a degree costs and how much their graduates, by major, are paid after school. That information could spur more practical competition and perhaps lower costs in schools as students pick colleges that offer better job possibilities.
"You will see a great reawakening,'' Kathleen Shanahan, a member of Florida's State Board of Education and CEO of Tampa's Uretek Holding Inc., told the Wall Street Journal last week. "The costs are going to come down."
By the 2014-15 academic year, Florida universities must detail their highest and lowest degrees based on graduates' full-time employment and how much they earn.
2. During the recent recession, companies seeking to fill positions increasingly raised the bar on job candidates as a means to cut down on the hundreds of applicants per position. Tampa's Moffitt Cancer Center is just one area organization that set up such hiring buffers to help troll the high volume of job candidates for the best credentials.
The same strategy was adopted by the Atlanta law firm cited in the New York Times story. Said Suzanne Manzagol, the law firm's recruiter: "When you get 800 resumes for every job ad, you need to weed them out somehow."
3. If it's true that the college degree is the new high school diploma, it suggests the master's degree may become the new college bachelor's degree. I'm not sure that parallel works quite so well, and the job market success of grads with college degrees like engineering or computer science can vary widely from those with English or sociology degrees.
But I do recall listening to a recent University of South Florida St. Petersburg panel of area business executives when one was asked if it still makes sense in time and money to get an MBA.
Her sobering response: For many financial and marketing jobs now, having an MBA is a minimum qualifier. Without one, your online resume will be increasingly rejected by filters designed automatically to thin the number of job applicants. That makes an MBA a door opener, but perhaps not much else.
4. The nasty flip side, of course, is if college grads are increasingly becoming receptionists and couriers, what's left for those with only a high school degree, or less?
The tough answer is: not enough. As the accompanying table shows, the national unemployment rate for those with at least a college degree is 3.7 percent, while those without a high school diploma face a jobless rate more than 3 times higher at 12.1 percent. And those jobs that are available tend to be low or minimum wage. In his State of the Union speech this month, President Barack Obama called for raising the minimum wage to $9 from $7.25 an hour.
A poll finds 71 percent of Americans support this idea. But some business groups argue that raising the minimum wage would add costs to businesses and discourage hiring.
5. At the least, it seems as if more employers are using bachelor's degrees as a basic signal of drive or talent in a job applicant, even if that job is filing papers or delivering documents from one attorney to another.
One big challenge for many Florida universities is to improve the too-low percentage of students who graduate with a degree within six years. The University of Florida and Florida State University boast respectable graduation rates at 84.5 percent and 74 percent, respectively. At the University of South Florida in Tampa, only 52 percent graduate in six years. And the number drops lower, to 36 percent, at USF St. Petersburg.
The business world is tough enough for young college grads to crack these days for nearly any kind of job.
Without at least some specialized training or technical certification, young people increasingly face digital hiring barriers. Lacking that college degree will, in effect, render them invisible.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at email@example.com.