Degrees are important, but so are skills


It’s time for balloons, bouquets and the annual blizzard of mortar boards tossed high in celebration.

Pomp and Circumstance, definitely, but what does a diploma really signify?

The labor market knows the stark reality: People who lack skills in literacy and numeracy (referring to basic math skills), won’t command the highest wages in job market, even if they’ve managed to earn enough credits to wrangle a college diploma.

“We’re focused on the wrong thing,” said Paul Harrington, director of Drexel University’s Center for Labor Markets and Policy and the co-author of two recent studies linking skills and earnings in the labor market.

Because it’s easy to measure, educators and policy makers push for “attainment,” chalking up markers for every diploma. Instead, Harrington said, they should pay more attention to skill acquisition.

With policy changes, “you can get pretty rapid gains in high school completion, but there’s not any evidence that skills are building. There are higher fractions of people getting diplomas, but the skills aren’t there,” Harrington said.

And that has a big impact long after caps and tassels have been stowed in the closet. At the college graduate level, higher skills yield higher pay. At the high school level, those skills tend to be measured by certificates known and accepted by local employers.

“American employers really value skills,” Harrington said.

Prestige and status and a diploma may get employees in the door, “but the labor market doesn’t award status and prestige,” he said. “It awards skills. And, in the labor market, we get rid of people without skills. The American human resource system is very good at weeding out people with low skills.”

Harrington, working with his longtime collaborators Neeta Fogg, a research professor, and Ishwar Khatiwada, an economist, scoured various educational measures, bumping those findings against employment and demographic data from the U.S. Census and the U.S. Department of Labor. They particularly relied on results from the Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). The PIAAC, a project of the international Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, surveys the abilities of adults in 38 countries.

  • One out of every five bachelor’s degree holders, among employed graduates aged 21 to 65, falls below proficiency in literacy, denoted as PIAAC level three, with the top score being five.
  • One out of every three bachelor’s degree holders scored below a level three in numeracy.
  • Even those at the doctoral degrees fell short: One in eight graduates scored below a level three in literacy and 12 percent scored lower than three in numeracy.
  • College graduates who scored four or five on a five-point scale with five being the highest literacy or numeracy level earned more than those who were merely proficient – 44 percent per month more for high math scores and 38 percent more for higher literacy scores.
  • In general, U.S. skill levels rank well below skill levels in other developed nations.

Attention to skill development is critical at an early age. Only 36 percent of the Philadelphia School District’s eight-year-olds are reading at grade level by third grade, according to the School District’s 2017-2018 score card. It’s up marginally from the previous year. Graduation has inched up from 65 percent in 2013 to 69 percent last year, including alternative schools. Excluding alternative schools, 79 percent of the District’s students graduated last year, up from 75 percent in the 2012-2013 year.

“When you have low skills, it reduces your odds of getting into college,” Fogg said. “Even if you get in, it reduces your odds of completing, wasting time and money. If you manage to persist and complete college, you may have the college degree, but you still won’t have the skills needed in the labor market.”

Literacy is particularly important, she said. “You could be Einstein, but if you can’t communicate, what good is it? The ones who communicate the findings are the ones who earn the most.”

Charity Hughes, immediate past president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management, the nation’s largest network of human resource professionals, agrees that the labor market quickly discovers who has skills.

“HR is typically able to weed out [low-skilled workers] pretty quickly and pretty accurately,” said Hughes, founder of Pathfinder Leadership Group LLC, a boutique human resources firm in Aston, Pa., who has held top human resource leadership positions at two major Philadelphia employers.

Hughes said, “As they show up to work, if their skills aren’t up to par, they will be invited to exit or else they will self-select out.”

So, what about that diploma?

Employers see the bachelor’s degree as a “basic test of whether someone can learn and get through a somewhat rigorous program,” said Meg Shope Koppel, chief research officer at Philadelphia Works, the city’s workforce development board. Philadelphia Works manages Pennsylvania’s CareerLink job matching service.

Aligning schools to employers’ needs

“The high school diploma doesn’t have a lot of bearing in the literacy and numeracy sector,” she said. “Without a college level diploma, it’s really hard for people to demonstrate that they have skills.”

That’s why, she said, employers would rather lure experienced workers away from other employers than take a chance. “We try to push relationships between the employers and the schools, so the schools can be better aligned with what employers need,” she said.

That’s what Stephen Jurash, president of the Manufacturing Alliance of Philadelphia, hears from his organization’s members. Employers hiring for the factory floor tell him that many high school graduates can’t read a tape measure and aren’t entirely comfortable with the concept of 9/10ths.

What they like, he said, are technical certificates, such as the welding certificate earned at Edison High School, or some of the manufacturing programs at Benjamin Franklin High School.

“That’s where the rubber hits the road,” he said. “When students graduate from high school, we don’t
know precisely what they’ve learned, but I know precisely what they’ve learned with a technical degree.”

Those students, he said, also tend to be more motivated and less likely to shy away from subjects such as algebra because they see its use as they learn their skills.

Harrington said that four-year colleges tend to have more success in weeding out high school graduates with low skills. They simply don’t get through the admissions process. Community College of Philadelphia (CCP), with its open admissions, tests its incoming students, many of them from Philadelphia public schools, for literacy and numeracy.

Whatever they didn’t get in high school, they have a chance to gain those skills if they stay in college and attain a four-year degree. If they don’t, Harrington said, their earnings potential is only marginally higher than if they had skipped college all together.

Need for remediation in college

Approximately 30 percent of CCP’s new entrants test into developmental literacy classes and about half require developmental mathematics courses, said Samuel Hirsch, vice president for academic and student success.

“We are definitely building up their skills and it’s not for the short term. This is not about a quick fix. This is about long-term skill gains for long-term success,” he said. He noted that about 50 percent of CCP’s graduates transfer to partner schools including Drexel and Temple University. “Our students do well,” he said.

For example, Rhodes Scholar Hazim Hardeman, now at Oxford University, nearly failed high school and started at Community College in developmental classes. He transferred to Temple University after graduation and earned one of academia’s highest honors.

“He built capacity [here] to move on to Temple, and then on from there,” Hirsch said.

James Allen. Photo by Jane Von Bergen

Frankford High School graduate James Allen, 37, back in college after decades, had to take remedial courses.

“It was actually a breath of fresh air,” he said. “I scored low in the pretests and one of the reasons I scored low is I haven’t been active in any type of reading and math since I graduated. Me being older, I didn’t feel any type of way about the tests because my ego isn’t on my shoulder. Why not use all the services to be the best that you can be?”

So what difference does a degree make? At Philadelphia Works, Meg Shope Koppel tells the story of a large financial employer seeking Java programmers among college and highschool graduates who said they knew the software language.

The company devised a simple programming test. Regardless of degree, “some couldn’t do it; some did it incredibly well,” Shope Koppel said.

But the employer’s recruiters noticed a stark difference between equally-abled Java programmers who had college degrees and those with high school diplomas. The college graduates looked for ways to push the programming for use in other applications, Shope Koppel said.

Those who had only graduated from high school, she said, “stopped at the task.”


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