“Overeducation” in the UK is apparently a problem. When we look at statistics for unemployment and underemployment, the number of people working in jobs below their educational level is also taken as a dismal statistic – but I don’t think that’s fair. In a perfect society, nobody who wants to work and is able to work should be unemployed or underemployed, but there will always be people who get a degree in maths and decide that instead of going into accountancy they want to be an entertainer at children’s parties. Why? Because they love children, but not number crunching. It’s as simple as that.
In a “can’t go wrong with a degree” world, we are still being labelled (statistically) as failures if we go into further education for the sake of it and then do not feel obliged to enter the select, narrow band of relevant graduate industries which follow.
Overeducation should be measured by personal assessment: at the SKOPE ESRC Festival of Social Science conference (The Yellow Brick Road?: Education-Work Transitions), it was pointed out that people who did art degrees usually didn’t expect to enter this field, say as art consultants, but were content to either take a long shot or just study the subject further because they loved it.
You hear that? They did what they love. Education doesn’t have to be a trial, something terrible undertaken only for the sake of the end goal – it can be enjoyable. And we should endorse that not scorn it. Learning is empowering, not only in a careers-based way; it carries with it a sense of fulfilment. And there is also studying whilst making up your mind – which is what I am doing. I wanted to continue to work in chemistry, but didn’t know what industry I was interested in, so the logical thing seemed to be to continue to study chemistry, which I enjoyed and would be eventually helpful to me, at a higher level. No matter whether I don’t need a PhD for the job I eventually get: I wanted to do it now. It’s called continuing professional development.
But if you go too far, it counts against you. People have to remove qualifications from their CVs at the risk of appearing overqualified and unlikely to stick at a job for long, or work hard at it. People are unemployed because they have a low skills/experience set, but high level qualifications and can’t compete. So much for qualifications as a quick screening process: they don’t even get a glance.
Careers advisors work not for the candidates, but for employers, which means if you don’t match what the employer they serve is looking for, they just won’t help you. And how do they explain this? Well, they treat you like it’s your fault you can’t get a job. You have the wrong/too many/too few qualifications. Support systems for the unemployed only helps after the fact and will turn away people facing only the risk of unemployment – forcing them into it. For those “helped”, this usually involves unrecognised and unhelpful compulsory training, further “overeducating” people when this is not in fact the problem; such actions serve to fault the individual, rather than recognising a problem with the system. This only adds to the demoralising experience of unemployment and makes it harder for people to stand back up and keep going.
So two things: we should be educated about the consequences of our training decisions (the “you can’t go wrong with a degree” mentality is untrue and outdated), and employers should also be educated about the reasons for training and qualifications: they are not always “to get a related job”!