Not all college majors are created alike, but it turns out that employers want their new hires to exhibit many of same skills regardless of what they major in. A recent study examines online job ads as a proxy for what employers view as the skills inherent in various college majors. Specifically, researchers look at how requested skills in ads are similar across majors and how differences in skills profiles might explain differences in wages. The idea is that a clearer understanding of how skill sets differ across fields could equip higher education to produce graduates better able to meet the specific demands of local employers.
Analysts measured the skills that employers associate with particular majors using job vacancy data obtained from Burning Glass Technologies, a company that collects almost all job ads in order to create “analytic products” for the labor market. The data include information not only on majors but also on skills, work locations, and occupational details, which enable researchers to link skills and majors at the individual job level and account for within-occupation variation in skill demand, which may be correlated with college majors. The final sample uses online ads from 2010 to 2018 and focuses on those that request a bachelor’s degree and list at least one skill and one major—which leaves them with about 18.5 million unique job ads. They use the Classification of Instructional Programs from the National Center for Education Statistics to code majors into broader categories.
Five majors appear in at least 10 percent of postings, including both business and computer and information sciences, which are listed on 29 percent and 26 percent of unique job postings, respectively. The least frequently demanded majors include theology, philosophy and religion, atmospheric sciences and meteorology, other physical sciences, library science, visual and performing arts, and protective services. Next, the researchers looked at whether the distribution of majors maps to the distribution of degrees granted. They find that two majors—nursing and economics—exhibit employer demand (via their representation in online ads) proportional to the number of degrees awarded. However, more demands for engineering and statistics majors appear in employer ads than the proportion of degrees granted in those areas, while philosophy and religion and English majors show just the opposite (more degrees and
/less demand, as reflected in online ads).
Next they find that the bucket of what are often termed cognitive skills—like problem solving and critical thinking—appears in more than three quarters of all job ads. In contrast, supervising and directing people and writing skills are least likely to appear in ads.
Finally, using data from the American Community Survey, the researchers looked at average earnings by major across metro areas for employees between the ages of twenty-five and fifty-four with bachelor’s degrees. They find substantial geographic variation both across and within majors in mean hourly wages. After accounting for major and geographic location, there’s still little alignment between the demand for particular skills and earnings by major. This suggests to the researchers that “majors can generally be conceptualized as bundles of aggregate skills that are fairly portable across areas in ways that occupations are not.”
The researchers conclude that a finer-grained categorization of the skills that make up successful completion of a major is needed. If so, research could better explain the observed wage variation within major and across place—and colleges could potentially do a better job supplying the knowledge and skills needed for particular majors, with students reaping the rewards in the local labor market.
All of that sounds good in theory, but our current education and workforce systems have always been deeply fragmented. It’s overly optimistic to suggest that a finer categorization of skills could initiate seamless alignment between them. It can’t hurt to try, but so much more is involved relative to how a formal education, or lack thereof, intersects with a career. An individual’s talents, passions, drive, and experiences, for starters, can play critical roles. If you need an inspiring reminder of that, look no further than this based-on-a-true-story movie.
SOURCE: Steven W. Hemelt et. al., “College Majors and Skills: Evidence from the Universe of Online Jobs Ads,” NBER Working Papers (December 2021).