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Ambiguity About Entry Requirements

One of the most standard topics of career information is the level of education, training, and/or experience commonly required for entry to the occupation in question. It is a standard part of the career profiles that I put in my books, and in fact this information topic provides the organizing principle for some of my books, such as 200 Best Jobs for College Graduates, which is now coming out in its fourth edition.

One of the most standard topics of career information is the level of education, training, and/or experience commonly required for entry to the occupation in question. It is a standard part of the career profiles that I put in my books, and in fact this information topic provides the organizing principle for some of my books, such as 200 Best Jobs for College Graduates, which is now coming out in its fourth edition.

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But this information topic is not as straightforward as it might seem. We information developers want to simplify it to a single statement, such as “bachelor’s degree required,” but it is often a more complicated matter in the real world of employment. For example, sometimes two equally good routes are available, such as a bachelor’s plus experience or a master’s without experience. (This is true for some managerial careers.) At other times, there’s a difference between what is minimally acceptable and what is competitive. Faced with such ambiguities, we information developers tend to opt for the least demanding of the alternatives.

Here’s another complication: Everyone knows somebody who’s working in a job that he or she does not qualify for according to the conventional standards. I’m not talking about a falsified resume, with a nonexistent degree. I mean someone who lacked the formal credentials but managed to land the job because of relevant work experience and an aptitude for picking up any other necessary skills on the job. We information developers tend to dismiss these people as exceptions, who should not be emulated by others who are aspiring to enter the same occupation. But they stand as evidence that entry requirements are often not very cleanly defined.

Another complicating factor is a change in the entry requirements, which always tends to be in an upward direction. For example, Registered Nurses can still enter the career with a two-year degree, but the duties they can take on are limited compared to what a nurse with a four-year degree can do. Physical Therapists used to need to get a master’s degree, but the doctorate is emerging as the new standard requirement. Audiologists are also going through this transition, a little in advance of Physical Therapists. Which level of education should be listed for these occupations? Again, when we information developers are pinned down to giving one level, we tend to list the lower one.

Finally, there is the divergence between documented historical behavior of job incumbents and our recommendations for job aspirants. If you look at the actual data on educational attainments of people in various occupations, you will often find that the dominant level of education does not match what is supposedly required for the job. This happens for the reasons described in the preceding two paragraphs: people who did an end run around the formal qualifications, plus people who entered the occupation in an earlier era when the entry requirements were lower. In addition, people sometimes are technically overqualified for their job; that is, they hold a college degree but work in an occupation that supposedly does not require it. My colleage Brian N. Rae, of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development (who inspired an earlier blog), has investigated this phenomenon and has identified several occupations in which more than 50 percent of the incumbents hold a bachelor’s or higher although the occupation is considered to require only moderate-term on-the-job training: Sales and Related Workers, All Other; Social and Human Service Assistants; Advertising Sales Agents; Floral Designers; Merchandise Displayers and Window Trimmers; and Tax Preparers.

I have been pondering this thorny issue lately because the Bureau of Labor Statistics is planning to change the way they report educational/training/experience requirements and the attainments of incumbents. You can see a comparison of their present and proposed formats on their Web site. In short, they propose reporting separate information on each component–education, training, and experience–rather than continuing to combine them with labels such as “work experience plus degree.” No simple summary of requirements can be perfect, but I think that what they propose will improve the information available to career decision makers.