The human capital and signaling stories can both explain the existence of malemployment. But malemployment research still provides some of the most compelling evidence in favor of the signaling model. The latest draft of my The Case Against Education explains why: By itself, malemployment is compatible with the human
capital model.How?Graduates are "malemployed" because they
failed to acquire marketable job skills in school.This could mean that malemployed graduates
failed to learn and retain the curriculum; recall that on the National
Assessment of Adult Literacy, over 50% of high-school grads and almost 20% of college
grads have less than Intermediate literacy and numeracy.Or it could mean that malemployed graduates
learn an irrelevant curriculum; recall that over 40% of high school coursework
and over 40% of college majors score "Low" in usefulness. When a B.A. bartender asks, "Why oh why can't
I get a better job?," the human capital model bluntly answers, "Because despite
your credentials, you didn't learn how to do
a better job."
The signaling model weaves a rather contrary tale. Malemployment reflects an arms race in the
labor market - workers' never-ending struggle to outshine each other.Rising education automatically sparks
credential inflation: The amount of education you need to convince employers to
hire you automatically rises too. In an
everyone-has-a-B.A. dystopia, an aspiring janitor might need a master's in
Janitorial Studies to land a job scrubbing toilets.[i]When a B.A. bartender asks, "Why oh why can't
I get a better job?," the signaling model answers, "Because too many competing
workers have even more impressive credentials than you do."
If both human capital and signaling allow for malemployment,
why raise the issue?Because the two stories
diverge on one crucial point: Does the labor market reward workers for education
they do not use?Human capital says no; signaling says
yes.Take bartenders with B.A.s.On the plausible assumption that college does
not transform students into better bartenders, the human capital model predicts
that B.A.s will fail to raise bartenders' income.The signaling model, in contrast, predicts
the opposite: Bartenders with B.A.s will outearn bartenders without B.A.s.Why?Because bars, like all businesses, want intelligent, conscientious,
conformist workers - and a B.A. signals these very traits.So given a choice, bars favor applicants with
B.A.s despite the irrelevance of the academic curriculum to the job.
To weigh the power of human capital versus signaling,
however, we must zero in on occupations with little or no plausible connection
to traditional academic curricula. Despite
many debatable cases, there are common occupations that workers clearly don't learn in school.Almost no one goes to high school to become a
bartender, cashier, cook, janitor, security guard, or waiter.No one goes to a four-year college to prepare
for such jobs.Yet as Table 4.6 shows,
the labor market comfortably rewards bartenders, cashiers, cooks, janitors,
security guards, and waiters for both high school diplomas and college degrees.
High school premium = [(median earnings for high school
graduates)/(median earnings for high school drop-outs)] -1.
College premium = [(median earnings for college
graduates)/(median earnings for high school graduates)] -1.
Source: Supplementary data for The College Payoff, supplied by author
None of these occupations are weird outliers.True, most bartenders, cashiers, cooks,
janitors, security guards, and waiters lack college degrees.Yet in the modern economy, all are common
jobs for college grads.More work as
cashiers (48th most common job for college grads) or waiters (50th)
than mechanical engineers (51st).More work as security guards (67th) or janitors (72nd)
than network and computer systems administrators (75th).More work as cooks (94th) and
bartenders (99th) than librarians (104th).I selected Table 4.6's occupations to minimize
controversy.Human capital purists could
insist that college provides useful training for electricians, real estate
agents, or secretaries.But even the
staunchest fans of human capital theory struggle to say, "College prepares the
next generation of cashiers and janitors for their careers" without smirking.
[i] I borrow this example from Vedder et al, p.28: "We
jokingly predict that colleges will offer a master's degree in Janitorial
Studies within a decade or two and anyone seeking employment as a janitor will
discover no one will hire unless proof of possession of such a degree is