Overqualified: Workers who know too much

Ireland has Europe’s highest rate of ‘overeducation’: too many people have qualifications they can’t use; many others lack the skills that employers want. Do we need to rethink our education system?

It could be described as a first-world problem: You come out of college clutching a parchment or two, start applying for jobs and then realise you’re overqualified.

John Deely of career advisers Pinpoint sees it regularly in his clients. “A lot of people do their third-level degree, their BA or BSc, and then arrive at the end of the journey with no thought about what they are going to do next; they enjoyed college so they say, feck it, I am going to do a masters.

“What I liken it to is you have a €1,000 voucher for Brown Thomas and you don’t know what you want – so you just go off and buy stuff.” It’s often said that “education is never a waste” but try telling that to one of Deely’s clients who spent seven years doing a postgraduate degree and now feels completely detached from the labour market. For some people, going to college uses up “a time and energy voucher that could have been spent on something better”, says the career coach.

The issue has come into sharper focus in recent years because of the growth in the number of students in higher education. In 1980, 20 per cent of school-leavers went directly into third-level colleges; now it’s 56 per cent. If that participation rate continues it is projected that the student population at third-level will rise from 166,000 currently to 212,000 by 2028.

A pair of new studies by Economic and Social Research Institute researchers Séamus McGuinness, Adele Bergin and Adele Whelan sheds further light on the issue, exploring the “mismatch” between third-level qualifications and the requirements of the job market. In one of their reports, provisional findings of which were released earlier this year, Ireland emerged as having the highest rate of “overeducation” in Europe.

The final report published this month under the EU Style research project (www.style-research.eu) confirms this dubious honour, estimating that 33 per cent of the Irish workforce was overeducated – namely that they had more qualifications than they needed for the job they were in.

Other countries on Europe’s geographical periphery came close behind – with Cyprus at 31 per cent, Spain at 30 per cent and Greece 28 per cent. In contrast, Germany was at 18 per cent, France 17 per cent and Czech Republic just 8 per cent.

The percentage represents the proportion of individuals with a level of education higher than the median in their occupation, and while this isn’t an ideal measure of overeducation, says McGuinness, it is a sound indicator.

Surplus graduates?

“I think we need to start having a debate about this. It could be there are too many graduates, or we are training them in the wrong areas, or it may be the mechanisms by which graduates are matched to employers are very poor.”

The dominant narrative coming from State agencies is that Ireland needs more graduates “but that does not seem to reflect the situation on the ground”. While the percentage figure is an average for the period 2001-2011, he says there has been very little fluctuation across that period or since. The exception was during the depths of the recession when “overeducation fell because young people were either emigrating or staying in education”.

For those in the “overeducated” bracket, there is a real cost, he stresses. Someone with a degree in a “non-graduate job” will typically earn about 20 per cent less than one of their peers in a graduate job. Having a third-level degree will, however, give you a higher income on average than someone with just a Leaving Cert, regardless of the occupation.

Mismatched staff

The second ESRI study identifies a higher incidence of “mismatch” among graduates placed in employment through commercial recruitment companies. “This is not surprising as their primary motivation is to get the people into a job and earn their commission,” says McGuinness. But this finding has a “clear policy implication”, he adds. “By strengthening links with employers and investing more heavily in career-support functions, universities and third-level institutions can play an important role in matching graduates with jobs.”

While there is general support for more work experience and internship programmes at third-level, McGuinness and his colleagues are touching a nerve. With the cost of education set to rise further, he says, “students need to be able to consider the true cost and benefit of higher education”. Overeducation is a real phenomenon and “that’s not necessary a message certain organisations want to hear.”

Not pointing any fingers, but the Higher Education Authority (HEA), which regulates the sector while also advocating a greater injection of State funding, is wary of any new narrative. Its chief executive, Tom Boland, says: "Once you talk about overeducation then you are into how many are you going to educate, and then you are into a quota. And if you are going to come up with a ceiling on numbers then you might exclude someone who is going to come up with the cure for cancer; you just don't know.

“The better question for me is: how do we find a way to fund, in a sustainable way, the demand for higher education?”

Boland is a member of a third-level expert group asked to report before the end of the year on a new funding model for the sector, now the “free fees” era is well and truly over. While he won’t discuss the work of the committee, he says he is “not in favour of dampening demand in any kind of way”.

Rather, he says there should be a greater attempt to “match the level of education” with what’s best for people “at a point in time”. He says: “There is a possibility that more people are going into higher education than needs to from their point of view.” Citing the high drop-out rates in institutes of technology – 24 per cent of first-year students don’t progress to second year, according to the latest HEA study – “for some of those dropping out, a period of further education might make them more academically ready”.

This chimes with the view of expert group chairman Peter Cassells who told an Oireachtas committee recently that a strengthened further education and training (FET) sector was needed both from a funding view and a "view of what's right".

FET stepping stones

Often described as the Cinderella sector of Irish education, FET has suffered from image and organisational problems. School-leavers and parents aiming for prestigious university courses dismiss FET as second rate. This is despite the fact some FET courses can act as a stepping stone to a degree, with qualifications counting as credits in many third-level institutions.

FET can also be an effective bridge to employment for graduates who discover there is little love for their qualification in the jobs market. (This reporter studied journalism at coláiste Dulaigh in Coolock after graduating with a masters from UCD.)

The reputation of the FET sector has not been helped by disjointed management and controversies that dogged the former training agency Fás. That entity was abolished and replaced in 2013 with a new management body, Solas, spanning training and further education.

Among its lofty targets, captured in a strategic plan for 2014-2019, are to make FET a “first choice” for many school-leavers, increase collaboration between further education and industry; and provide “consistency, quality-assurance and formal accreditation” across all courses. In this way, FET would become the “fourth pillar of the Irish education system”, alongside primary, secondary and higher levels.

Solas chief executive Paul O’Toole believes part of the challenge is cultural. “Germany, Austria, and some of the northern European countries are held up as an example of societies that place an equal value on academic and vocational learning. But that is a cultural thing developed over centuries. It’s not something you switch on and switch off . . . We are not Germany, and we shouldn’t think, let’s be like Germany. But we can look at systems around the world and incorporate best practice.”

Another big difference between Ireland and Germany is the dearth of large-scale domestic industries capable of sustaining manufacturing apprenticeships. Most businesses in Ireland are small-to-medium in size, while the large-staffed multinationals tend to bypass local training mechanisms and recruit internationally instead.

One of FET’s selling points over higher education is its links with employers; another is the fact that it recognises how “people learn in different ways”, says O’Toole.

“If people feel it’s an also-ran, or a second choice, that reflects on us as a society. Why not recognise that people have contributions to make that can be expressed or learned through a vocational stream, as well as maybe the preferred academic stream? If we recognise that, and then make sure the provision lives up to what it’s meant to do, then perhaps the standing of FET will improve.”

A second chance

A stronger FET sector would not only give third-level institutions healthy competition but it could help to give a second chance to young people who have fallen out of both education and the workforce.

According to the OECD, about 20 per cent of Irish 15-29 year olds are the “Neet” category of “neither employed nor in education or training”. This is well above the EU average of 15 per cent. A high proportion of Neets in a country is associated with long-term inequalities. Adults with an honours degree in Ireland earn 100 per cent more than those whose highest educational attainment is the Leaving Certificate. Adults with a higher certificate or ordinary degree earn 31 per cent more, according to OECD data.

On an individual level, then, there is a strong economic case for pursuing higher education. The job market may be competitive but the prizes are greater, and the demand for graduates also appears to be strong.

An initial report from the Cassells task force said, under the best-case scenario termed “recovery”, an additional 160,000 graduates are expected to be at work in 2020, or an additional 20,000 a year. Projections suggest that 48 per cent of job openings in the Irish economy to 2025 will be for graduates.

However, Deely stresses that qualifications are usually never enough when it comes to hunting down work. “People feel they can educate themselves out of a situation or into a situation, and the world does not work that way.” He says practical experience and building up contacts are two key components of career development.

He cites the example of a client who graduated from food science and spent the next 2 and a half years in retail. There was a work experience component with her degree course and she decided to do it with a major company overseas, which was good while it lasted, but it also meant she lost out on building up local contacts. The recession didn’t help – but she has since managed to get back into the food science industry, partly by sharpening up her sales pitch.

A key strategy, says Deely, is “to try to put yourself about”, including doing detailed research on the companies you’re applying to. Happily, “one of the skills of graduates is you are a researcher”, he points out.

Equally, he says, if you’re a postgraduate and you realise you’ve a passion for working in food retail, for example, then you might benefit from “playing down” your academic qualifications “and building up other things”. He stresses the CV is not a formal document but a “shop window that should allow you to go somewhere where you want to go”.

Head in sand

As for the policymakers, McGuinness says “it’s not realistic to say we need to scale back” on higher education but we need to understand why Ireland has such a high rate of overeducation. “We shouldn’t just stick our heads in the sand on this.”

One hypothesis is that we are producing too many graduates in the "wrong" areas, namely arts and humanities. The latest HEA's survey of student prospects showed that 77 per cent of level-eight (honours bachelor degree) computer science graduates were in employment nine months after graduation. In contrast, just 36 per cent of graduates in arts and humanities were in employment. Half of this cohort were engaged in further studies or training.

However, repeated surveys show employers prioritise skills like problem-solving, critical thinking and communications, including foreign language ability, in recruitment – all things associated with an arts degree. Moreover, studies in the US show that “liberal arts majors” are generally slower than science and engineering grads to enter high-income brackets but on average catch up over the course of their careers.

Reiterating this point, Boland says just because a degree is not “immediately economically valuable” it doesn’t mean it won’t pay you back in the long run. People develop at different paces, and flourish in different ways.

As Boland points out: “Someone may well have a job in the local chipper while waiting to become an astrophysicist.”