How many jobs really require college?

Monday, April 24th, 2017

The conventional wisdom is that we need to send even more people to college, but Devin Helton is skeptical enough that he went through a master spreadsheet of employment in the United States and made his own assessment of what percent of jobs truly require college.

Here is a table with my results, compared to what the actual attendance rates are:


There is no plausible way that 60% of jobs will innately require a degree in ten years. If 60% of jobs require a college degree on paper, that requirement will be entirely artificial (due to credentialing laws and competitive signaling spiral/degree inflation — see for example DC’s new regulation that childcare workers must have college degrees).

The most surprising thing I noticed was how many jobs require almost no specialized study or training. Even in contrarian, anti-college intellectual circles, it is popular to say we need more vocational education and apprenticeships. But skilled trades are only around 15% of jobs. The majority of jobs require no special training. They are jobs like cashier, driver, orderly, real estate agent, customer service agent, store clerk, house painter, or laborer.

Less than 15% of jobs can be plausibly said to need more study than the classic high school education.

If we want to make the working class better off, we should subsidize wages, not unnecessary education:

Consider the goods and services that make up a good and comfortable life: high-tech gizmos, gas heating, indoor plumbing, a well-built home, access to a skilled doctor, good restaurants, good beer, parks, well-built infrastructure, a stroll down a street with pretty buildings, etc. If you look at the production process for those goods and services, only a small percent of the workers involved need a college degree. And most degrees granted do not improve the production process — how does granting millions of degrees in “business”, “communications” or “social science” lead to more and better of these products? It doesn’t. And in fact, by channeling so many people into the college pipeline, we have lost out on the skills that did make for the good life. We have lost the artisans that once created beautiful streetscapes and ornate architectural detailing. We have less money to spend on infrastructure. We have more debt, and more stress.

Furthermore, even in the engineering fields, much of the know-how exists exclusively inside the productive organization — not inside the textbooks. Every engineer, when getting a job, has a big adjustment period as they learn how things are actually done. They learn why the schoolbook version was simplified or out-dated, and they learn the real techniques and tricks and tooling that they actually need to know to make things work.

In the past few decades, America has become more educated in terms of degrees. But in reality, people like my dad were training Chinese engineers to replace them, as the boomers retired and the high-tech job moved overseas. And now Forbes tells us that the Kindle cannot be made in America, because the essential technological production no longer exists here. According to policy wonks — who measure skills and education by number of years people spend sitting in chair — we have become more educated. But if you look at the actual knowledge needed to build high-tech goods, the issue is a lot more murky.

His recommendations:

  • Separate schooling from credentialing.
  • Create a set of free, online high school and college degree programs that any American could enroll in, and pursue at their own pace.
  • At age 13, give everyone a $100k education voucher.
  • Legalize and normalize apprenticeship contracts.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    In no particular order, the processes that have devastated the working class are: women entering the work force; automation; legal and illegal immigration; off-shoring industry; and free trade. Subsidizing wages might counter the deleterious effects of automation, off-shoring and free trade, but it does not address the other issues of immigration and women in the work force. What would help, and what is actually required, is a thorough-going protectionist trade policies and highly restrictionist (preferably zero) immigration policies.

    If none of this is acceptable, there will have to be a guaranteed minimum income (shades of Nixon) financed by very heavy, progressive income taxes on the upper classes, with an absolute cap on what they can earn.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Bob, I understand you to believe American workers are permanently uncompetitive with non-American workers. After you recreate the USSR, which American workers can produce the wealth necessary to subsidize the other American workers?

  3. Sam J. says:

    “…American workers are permanently uncompetitive with non-American workers…”

    American workers are permanently noncompetitive with other workers with all the regulations. Not that I want to get rid of them and have children in factories and our rivers catching on fire.

    There’s also the little matter of the bankers getting free money while they charge us and business a fortune. We could have done a lot more for our economy by giving small business $16 trillion dollars worth of free money and closed the banks. Our whole money supply system is a scam.

    The Chinese and Japanese are much smarter their banking system is owned essentially by the government and interlocking controlled entities. Ours are owned by, I assume with good reason, the Jews.

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