Bryan Caplan  

Underestimating Overqualification

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Economists are finally waking up to the fact that many people are overqualified for their jobs.  You don't need a college degree to be a baggage porter or bellhop, but according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 17% of them have a bachelor's degree or more.  So do 15% of taxi drivers and chauffeurs - and 14% of mail carriers.  Even if you insist that what you learn in college is broadly useful on-the-job, can you really believe that it makes you better at putting letters in mailboxes?

Once you drink this Kool-aid, though, you're on a slippery slope.  If you admit that "Some jobs really don't require a college education," it's hard to deny the harsher fact that "Some jobs don't require a high school education either."  Take baggage porters and bellhops.  What did they learn in their last four years of high school that makes them more productive in their jobs?  If you answer, "A strong work ethic," think again.  Which actually builds a better work ethic: goofing off in high school with the other kids who don't plan to go to college?  Or hustling for tips as a bellhop?

On average, I freely admit, the return to education remains fairly high.  But the marginal return is a different story.  Students determined to finish college - or high school - probably aren't going to remain overqualified for long.  It's the borderline students, I conjecture, who get stuck in jobs that don't require their formal credentials.  We should accept this fact - and stop encouraging and subsidizing these borderline students to finish high school and college.  Someone has to carry baggage.  Shouldn't it be high school drop-outs?


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COMMENTS (14 to date)
frankcross writes:

But I presume employers will prefer a college grad, even if the job does not strictly require it. Such a person has demonstrated some intelligence and self discipline, which are valuable even for doormen. By getting the degree the borderline students give themselves a leg up.

Steve Sailer writes:

According to an article I read in the Chicago Tribune in the 1990s, skycaps at the curb at O'Hare airport make six figures. They were at the time almost all sons of police officers, firemen, politicians, and other middle class people with some Chicago-style clout.

Prakash writes:

Maybe an ability to conduct better conversations, needed for a bellhop or a good taxi driver, or a bartender?

Robert writes:

Does this data point support your claim that the marginal returns are in doubt? Surely it would be better to look the jobs that these boderline students do over the course of their life and compare that to their educational achievement?

In other words, are these people bellhops for life?

Silas Barta writes:

@Prakash:

Maybe an ability to conduct better conversations, needed for a bellhop or a good taxi driver, or a bartender?

What fraction of high school actually goes toward this skill?

Michael writes:

I'm a high school dropout. So I'll go ahead and quit my job as a software engineer and get right on that bellhop thing...I didn't know it was what I was supposed to do.

It may take a while, though; I kinda of need the extra money to pay for grad school next year.

Dale writes:

re: Frankcross

Not always. It is entirely possible to be "overqualified" for a job to the point where you will not be accepted.

Part of the reason for this comes in with the costs of training and acclimation. They may be lower for higher qualified individuals, but they are still non-zero.

If you have a highly qualified individual in a job that does not suit their qualifications the employer may rationally believe that that individual is likely to want to move on into a better position. After all, the highly qualified individual is working below their potential marginal revenue product by taking the lower paying job.

Because of this the employer will see higher costs of employment relative to someone who is less qualified. They expect to train the less qualified individual once and have them stick around longer.

Nathan Smith writes:

Here's my suggestion: make subsidies to college education work-tested. No one gets them unless they work for a couple of years first and are able to make a down-payment based on their own earnings. That would be a good way to distinguish (a) those who can afford to pay for it out of pocket and don't need subsidies, (b) those who are really determined to get an education, and (c) those who might find out that life without school isn't so bad.

Les Cargill writes:

But this is just Kling's PSST again, isn't it? The mean returns are high; the marginal returns are not. And frankly, taken to it's consequence, the read is "well, the pallatives we've had for social injustice don't work any more". It's ammo
for Marxists.

Les Cargill writes:

But this is just Kling's PSST again, isn't it? The mean returns are high; the marginal returns are not. And frankly, taken to it's consequence, the read is "well, the pallatives we've had for social injustice don't work any more". It's ammo
for Marxists.

quadrupole writes:

@Michael: I'm even more confused than you are... after dropping out of high school before I went into software engineering I pursued a PhD in Physics (String Theory) :(

PrometheeFeu writes:

@Michael and quadrupole:
I don't believe Bryan is saying you should not be a software engineer if you dropped out of high school. I believe he is saying that if someone has dropped out of high school it might not make sense to push them towards finishing high school or going to college. I don't believe he says that they should be pushed any direction. Just that maybe it doesn't make sense to spend all that time studying things which will not be used.

Neeraj Krishnan writes:

One assumption here is education is a means to some end. But education is also about the joy of figuring things out, reading, learning from your professors and fellow students, making friends, not worrying about a livelihood. As a species we have found a rather nice way to spend the first 20 or so years of life learning (and sadly this not available to many children) - and it seems to me a nice way to begin life.

Will writes:

Lets not forget people with higher degrees. After receiving my phd in high energy physics, I was unemployed for 4 months, followed by a six months stint as a bartender.

After that I landed (as most of us do) in a job in finance that in no way requires my phd. I spent 7 years + undergrad of my life training for jobs that mostly don't exist, and I'm not alone. Of the dozens of physics phds I know, only five have positions that actually require a phd. I get the impression its even worse in the humanities.

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