It’s at least a Masters’ degree these days … but why?

When I made the transition from school to work in the 1970s, a standard Grade 12 education (Grade 13 in Ontario, CEGEP graduation in Québec, and A-levels in Britain) was sufficient to land just about any reasonable job you wanted.

By the early 1980s, that was no longer the case. The same entry level positions now required a Bachelor’s degree. (In almost all cases, what the degree was in didn’t matter, but having a degree did.)

Today, it’s not uncommon to require a Masters’ degree, plus perhaps an industry certification or two on top. Same job. Much more stringent requirements.

Entrepreneurs, of course, don’t need to worry about this. Those that choose to start their own venture aren’t asked to display their diplomas before someone will buy from them. Bill Gates, you may remember, never finished university: Microsoft was built on the back of his Grade 12 plus a year of a Bachelor’s degree (not that Microsoft didn’t quickly start hiring employees with doctorates in computer science).

With, I’m sorry to say, one exception. If you want one of the NAFTA-class visas that allow you to provide professional services across the border, you’d better have the paperwork.

Canada, México and the United States all have similar requirements: I’ll use the TN-1 visa that the US issues to Canadians as an example.

It requires a Master’s degree, a record of professional recognition (publications or regular professional speaking engagements), and between the two you’d better be able to make the case that you’re qualified relative to the work you’re about to do. (In my own case, my publications and speaking record on IT economics was coupled with my MA in Philosophy to gain a TN-1 for a piece of work on Wall Street.)

I’m not sure, in 2013, I could get the same TN-1 as I got in 2000. These days, I’d probably have to present an MBA or MA in Economics or MSc in Computer Science, coupled with my track record. (Not that the rules have changed, but you’re totally at the discretion of whichever border guard you find serving you when you are ready to get the visa, which is issued when crossing the border.)

Now, if you’re a student, what that means (in most cases) is that you will come out of school with the equivalent of about seven years’ student debt (since Masters’ programs are more expensive than Bachelors’ programs are).

For that, you get the same entry level position as you could get in the 1970s with Grade 12… (and the same level of drudgery and boredom as you adjust to life in the cubicle farms).

Partly, this escalation of requirements is a consequence of how pay grades are assigned. The typical organization uses a mathematical model that judges, on the one hand, the number of people you’ll control and the size of the budget envelope you’ll be responsible for, more or less equally with the educational requirements assigned to the position.

Raise the educational requirements, raise the pay grade. (The alternative of delegating real authority and resources downward in the organization also exists, but isn’t often used. Spend a half-day perusing the Dilbert archives if you’re not sure why.)

Raising the pay grade, in turn, forces the management pay grades upward — and in a long period of 0-2% annual pay rises (as has been the case since the mid-1990s) moving people up through positions (this is why you see the same job classified as “junior x”, “intermediate x” and “senior x” rather than there just being a job “x”) and having higher-ranked positions reporting to you (if you’re a manager) is the only way to gain much more income regularly. It’s become, in other words, a job retention strategy.

What this means, from a personal due diligence point of view, is that you must keep track of how these requirements are changing around you, and keep adding to your education. Otherwise you can find yourself in a trap where your credentials are never looked at, because the computer scanner reading them doesn’t find the specific items that have been specified years after you started work in the field.

At the same time, be very sure the credentials you seek are worth the cost, especially if you’re using debt — or absence from the workplace — to finance them.

As an educator, I used to tell my students that at some point in their career they could expect to spend a period of time self-employed. What I didn’t tell them was how many of them would end up falling into that because they fell off the job ladder and couldn’t scramble back on thanks to credential mismatch.

That’s because it wasn’t as obvious a problem as it is now. And it will get worse before it gets better.

4 thoughts on “It’s at least a Masters’ degree these days … but why?

    1. Bruce Stewart Post author

      Amen (and welcome!) Don. The worst part is a lot of continuing education won’t register properly on the computerized résumé scanners, yet the knowledge is just as good.

  1. Lynne Diligent

    It’s clear that higher percentages of people are going to college, but the percentage of higher-level jobs has probably stayed about the same. This mismatch drives educational attainment levels ever upward.

    1. Bruce Stewart Post author

      Hi, Lynne:

      Yes, the lack of positions relative to the number of graduates has its part to play in mismatching educational achievement to work requirements, although the games played with pay evaluation schemes are playing their part as well.

      In any event, the important lesson for the student (or the parent) is “pay as you go”. All education is valuable in its own way, but if you’re saddled with tens (even hundreds) of thousands of dollars in debt having gone through it without meaningful prospects to discharge that debt it loses its value quickly.

      The person, like my daughter, who has gone through university without debt (saved, then went, and is now working again to save for graduate school) can come out and not worry about the work world quite so much. (She can also study things that interest her rather than frantically seeking a program that will lead to “a big enough job” to pay down the accumulated bills!)

      As someone whose degrees are in Philosophy (but also ran up no debt acquiring them) I have never had to worry about being stuck because my degrees had become a millstone around my neck. These days, where student debt is not dischargeable in bankruptcy, keeping your freedom is more important than ever!


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