Degrees at Work

Published on Jul 30, 2019

Updated on Nov 3, 2022

Written by Emsi Burning Glass

Degrees at Work

Degrees at Work, a new study released by Emsi, uncovers the serendipitous economic outcomes of diverse educational paths.

Too often, we define the value of education by its level of connection to a specific career. This framework presupposes someone who both settles on an economic future early in life, and pursues it without deviating during college and throughout their working lives. The goal of policymakers and educators, goes the thinking, should be to guide this rational market actor towards the best options (i.e., high-paying STEM jobs).

But there are two problems with this framework. First, humans generally aren’t perfectly rational market actors. Second, education isn’t as deterministic of our work as we might believe. Instead, we find education lays a crucial foundation for work, but the demands of the economy equally shape how people adapt their education to work and vice versa. Your math or English degree is shaped by the job you find, and the job you find is in turn influenced and changed based on your experience (including general life experience) and educational background.

To better understand such dynamics and complexities, we analyzed the career outcomes and skills for hundreds of thousands of people as they move and navigate the labor market relative to six program types. The programs we analyzed have widely varying levels of perceived applicability to the world of work:

  • Language and philosophy and social sciences (not applied)

  • Business and communications (somewhat applied)

  • Engineering and IT (highly applied)

Our hope is to discover whether these different degrees have radically different outcomes, and whether we can sense nuanced movements and values of these degrees in the market. 

As we analyzed the data, we didn’t find neat cohorts entering a few high-profile careers with perfect intentionality. Instead, and without much surprise, we see something that looks much more like the reality we see in our daily lives: people moving in the market based on a complex web of factors, changing over time, finding their way and adapting as they go.

  • While the one or two top careers for each program type are the ones we might expect, the majority of graduates’ outcomes are dispersed widely, among many different careers.

  • We see graduates moving in and out of careers over their first, second, and third job. Sometimes these changes place graduates in entirely different career fields from one job to another. 

But these individually inchoate paths produce clear patterns in aggregate.

  • Sales, marketing, management, and business and financial analysis appear in the top ten most popular outcomes for almost all degrees—including Engineering and IT.

  • These consistently popular outcomes revolve around four core business functions: tactical communication, strategic communication, interpersonal oversight, and operational oversight.

  • 54% of all the graduates we analyzed went into these core business roles, as opposed to 25% for STEM jobs and 21% for soft skill jobs.

Graduates from a variety of programs are organically finding their way into these careers, because they are critical roles that enable the successful sale and delivery of a product or service. The importance of these roles is reflected in the enormous demand for them.

  • There are currently nearly 15 million sales jobs in the economy, in every sector and region.

  • The sales jobs with most growth are generally those on the professional, higher-wage side.

  • Marketing, PR, and advertising jobs have grown by 62% in the past 10 years.

  • Management and business and financial analysis each have around eight million jobs, as well as high median wages.

There is an enormous part of the economy hungry for graduates with skills in analysis and communication—skills students are honing as they conduct close readings of texts, persuade their classmates in seminars, and hone the style and structure of papers. But students outside STEM fields often lack the sense that they are gaining discrete, in-demand skills in the course of their studies. Consequently, they do not perceive a clear line between their education, and the working life for which it laid the foundation. 

And perhaps more importantly, as part of this analysis we begin to move past career outcome to the skills used by graduates of these programs once they enter the labor market. We believe that this is the next critical step, because it allows us to better understand their actual work activities and the shape of their work, as opposed to just knowing that they work in something like “sales.”

For example, in this analysis we found, unsurprisingly, that a lot of language and philosophy grads end up working in education. Intuitively, from this we would expect that many of them are K-12 teachers. However, when we looked at the skills of language and philosophy grads in education, we saw that they are much more engaged in what we referred to “education product design.” The are using or adapting their educational background to instructional design, learning management systems, educational technologies, and even graphic design and HTML.

Studying these skills helps us understand the nuance degrees exhibit in the market—how graduates adapt what they’ve learned based on available jobs, as well as how the day to day activities of jobs are shaped by the capabilities of job-holders. Using skills data, we can optimize the effectiveness of educational program creation, better inform students in these programs of their options, and provide employers with clarity on the value of and roles for diverse degrees.

Essentially, this data is creating new objectivity and clarity where in the past anecdotes and confusion have dominated.

The ramifications of such data are many. And our hope here is that such analysis is only the beginning of many conversations and new ways of connecting educational programs, work, and people.

To learn more about how Emsi data can help drive these conversations for your college, business, or community, contact Rob Sentz.