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These fast-growing Oregon jobs don't require a college degree

Oregon education needs to focus more on soft skills, work-based training, Harvard speaker says. 

Looking to become a nurse, trucker, or sales rep? You’re in luck.

Those are Oregon’s fastest-growing “middle skills” jobs—those that require more training than a high school diploma, but less than a college degree. On average these jobs stay unfilled for more than a month.

Related story: Pipe Dreams: Plumbers adapt to the knowledge economy

At the Oregon Talent Summit, a workforce conference, on Friday, Harvard Business School professor Joseph Fuller attempted to explain why.

Fuller told a familiar story—young Oregonians are flocking to universities for history and English degrees, and leaving high-paying trade jobs unfilled. Oregon needs more emphasis, he said, on so-called “soft skills,” like communication and taking feedback, and more funding for career and technical education.

“We need to place more emphasis on work-based training,” he said. “We know it works.”

“We need to place more emphasis on work-based training,” Fuller said. “We know it works.”


On the first point, Fuller indulged in some curmudgeonly millennial-bashing. Kids these days, he opined, don’t know how to show up at 9 a.m. and take straight talk from a supervisor.

“The kids coming out of the K-12 system,” Fuller said,  “are not as prepared as their parents were.”

Fuller might want to check that assessment with the Harvard Business Review. A 2016 issue noted millennials are actually workaholics compared to previous generations.

Millennials shouldn’t be blamed for their lack of preparedness, Fuller qualified. Oregon’s public high schools are woefully underfunded. Colleges are trying to fill the gap to prepare students for work.

There’s another way, Fuller said. Apprenticeship programs and other real-world experience, can do the job just as well.

He pointed to a Harvard Business School survey on the future of work. According to the survey:  

-49% of employers said college graduates and non-degree workers with experience were just as productive (31% percent favored graduates)

-40% of employers said both groups had similar retention rates (29% favored graduates)

Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of Lumina Foundation, agreed employers need to focus more on training and educating employees because hiring staffers with skills can often cost businesses more than training the existing workforce.

It is “important to their bottom line,” said Merisotis on the topic of keeping employees’ skills up to date. He added training employees is an effective way to retain workers. “One of the best ways for companies to play a civic role is to improve the talent of employees,” he said.   

An unfortunate side effect of push toward college education, Fuller says, is degree inflation.

According to the Harvard Business School survey, compared to high school graduates with on-the-job experience, college graduates demanded more raises, paid more attention to offers from competitors and felt less engaged at work.

Yet thousands of young people go and get degrees anyway. Faced with a large number of applicants, employers use degrees to weed people out. That leads to “degree inflation”—employers asking for college graduates they don’t need.

The following data, from a Harvard Business School analysis of the American Community Survey, shows the prevalence of degree inflation in Oregon.  

In Oregon, 16,579 jobs are at risk of degree inflation. The top three are:

Sales representatives, wholesale and manufacturing

First line supervisors of retail sales workers

Bookkeeping, accounting and auditing clerks

Most people who hold these jobs don’t have degrees, even though job postings for the positions now require one.

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1 comment

  • Joe Fuller
    Joe Fuller Thursday, 31 May 2018 08:47 Comment Link

    I don't know if I'm more or less curmudgeonly than the average 60-year-old professor, but I do feel compelled to correct several misimpressions left by this article. First, I made no blanket statements about the attributes of millennials. The references to a lack of punctuality and inability to deal with negative feedback from supervisors were illustrations of the reasons employers are dissatisfied with newly hired middle skills workers. Neither did I "opine" on the relative academic performance of the current generation of young Americans-- I cited the OECD's PIAAC survey data that shows that American students performance in literacy, numeracy and technical problem solving has fallen from #1 forty years ago to near the bottom of the table today. As for the reference to Sarah Carmichael's article on the Project: Time Off survey, I appreciate the attempted witticism. It is, of course irrelevant, since I made no blanket statement about millennials, but I would also point out that the survey was of employed millennials only and captured their self-impression of their work-life balance. It did not offer any objective or relative assessment.
    By way of closing, the #1 fault employers find in new employees is "inattention to detail."

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