While companies scramble to find talent amid perceived “skills gaps” and “labor shortages,” their job postings exclude millions of qualified Americans. These applicants do not face this dispiriting experience because of race, ethnicity, gender, age or disability — these reasons would be illegal, and rightly so. Instead, they are excluded because they’re among the roughly two-thirds of U.S. workers who lack a bachelor’s degree.
College-degree discrimination has become so widespread that many take it for granted. Almost three-quarters of new jobs from 2007 to 2016 were roles in which most employers typically “require” bachelor’s degrees — but fewer than 4 in 10 American workers have that credential. Going to war against arithmetic is a bad idea, and our post-pandemic skilled-worker shortage is a wake-up call.
Requiring a medical degree to treat patients or a civil engineering degree to design a bridge is common sense. By contrast, requiring a generic college degree to be considered for jobs such as office manager, sales representative, digital marketer or data-center technician may be common, but it makes no sense.
Building an electricity plant powered by fossil fuels usually requires hundreds of electricians, pipe fitters, millwrights and boilermakers who typically earn more than $100,000 a year in wages and benefits when they are unionized.
But on solar farms, workers are often nonunion construction laborers who earn an hourly wage in the upper teens with modest benefits — even as the projects are backed by some of the largest investment firms in the world. In the case of Assembly Solar, the backer is D.E. Shaw, with more than $50 billion in assets under management, whose renewable energy arm owns and will operate the plant.\
While Mr. Biden has proposed higher wage floors for such work, the Senate prospects for this approach are murky. And absent such protections — or even with them — there’s a nagging concern among worker advocates that the shift to green jobs may reinforce inequality rather than alleviate it.
While some of the new green construction jobs, such as building new power lines, may pay well, many will pay less than traditional energy industry construction jobs. The construction of a new fossil fuel plant in Michigan employs hundreds of skilled tradespeople who typically make at least $60 an hour in wages and benefits, said Mike Barnwell, the head of the carpenters union in the state.
By contrast, about two-thirds of the roughly 250 workers employed on a typical utility-scale solar project are lower-skilled, according to Anthony Prisco, the head of the renewable energy practice for the staffing firm Aerotek. Mr. Prisco said his company pays “around $20” per hour for these positions, depending on the market, and that they are generally nonunion.