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There Are 5,000 Janitors in the U.S. with PhDs

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There Are 5,000 Janitors in the U.S. with PhDsThere are 18,000 parking lot attendants in the U.S. with college degrees. There are 5,000 janitors in the U.S. with PhDs. In all, some 17 million college-educated Americans have jobs that don’t require their level of education. Why?

The data comes from a the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and can be seen here in handy, depressing chart form:

There Are 5,000 Janitors in the U.S. with PhDs

At the Chronicle, where the above chart was posted, Richard Vedder argues that maybe we place too much importance on higher education, citing a new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research:

This week an extraordinarily interesting new study was posted on the Web site of America’s most prestigious economic-research organization, the National Bureau of Economic Research. Three highly regarded economists (one of whom has won the Nobel Prize in Economic Science) have produced “Estimating Marginal Returns in Education,” Working Paper 16474 of the NBER. After very sophisticated and elaborate analysis, the authors conclude “In general, marginal and average returns to college are not the same.” (p. 28)

In other words, even if on average, an investment in higher education yields a good, say 10 percent, rate of return, it does not follow that adding to existing investments will yield that return, partly for reasons outlined above.

Whatever some eggheads work out “college” to mean for people on paper can’t really take into account the experience of going to college, but the numbers are pretty surprising nonetheless. So next time you see a custodian scribbling the proof to some unsolvable math problem on a chalkboard after hours, well, you know. [Chronicle via Nick Bilton]

Send an email to Kyle VanHemert, the author of this post, at kvanhemert@gizmodo.com.

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Yep, them PhD’s in comparative literature come in real handy. Reply

Graviton1066 promoted this comment

I wonder how much of this is a result of high schools being so focused on college prep, where people who might have just said “I think I’ll be a plumber” are pushed to college and wind up with a communications degree.

/has a communications degree.
/is an accounting clerk for the US gov. Reply

Anyone who has ever attended the stereotypical college lecture knows that a college degree is nothing more than a certification by a trustworthy authority that you know something. Pure education – just learning something, internalizing it – requires nothing more than a few textbooks, some nonfiction books, and a lot of reading. With public libraries, this is often free – even in the US.

What you’re really paying for with a Bachelor’s degree is the ability to write and communicate, because you can’t learn that all by your lonesome – you need somebody to check your writing for you; you need someone to debate your field with. A Master’s degree is the indication that you actually know something about your field beyond what a simple textbook will teach you, and a PhD indicates that you know enough about the subject to be able to teach it on a college level.

This, of course, does not apply to stuff like engineering disciples (where good engineering programs, including at the undergraduate level, teach you how to work in the kind of large teams and collaborative software that exist in the real world) or directed schools such as law school or medical school.

What does this mean? Private university tuition is generally a ripoff for liberal arts majors. Period. Reply

I’m still not really sure why I’m going to college. I have not learned much, and what I have learned is useless. I will never need to calculate how long it will take for a signal to reach the moon, and if I do, I will not remember how. I will have to look it up. I would have learned much more if I had been working for the past 4 years instead of just part time work and full time school. Gen-ed classes are also the most useless things that exist. They waste 2 years of my life (+ ~$30,000 (more for people that go to out of state schools) + ~$100,000 I could have made if I worked full time for those 2 years) on something that doesn’t apply to what I will be doing. Reply

Zanzan42 promoted this comment

@firestorm666: Dropping out worked for me (although obviously not as well as it did for Steve Jobs and Bill Gates).

Not that I would recommend it for everybody.

I guess I would put it this way: the degree that you’re paying for (or going way into debt for) had better enable you to get a decent paying job, or else it’s probably not worth it (at least in economic terms).

I’ve read stories of people going $150k into debt to get a degree in counseling that might them a $3ok a year job.

That’s simply not going to work. You’ll have a tough time paying back the loan, let alone saving enough money for retirement. Reply

Ph.D is not an easy degree to get. Not like an MD. People forget that Ph.D is paid for via tuition remission and a hefty stipend. Therefore there is no monetary investment for getting one’s PhD. The only investment is time and sanity, which you will surely lose and never get back.

I’m still looking for mine. Reply

I spent a long time reading all the comments. What hasn’t been touched on in the majority of them is that all of these college grads in the table are -=working=-.

If anything, college teaches delayed gratification, I think. You’re learning and doing things for the chance at a wide array of options years down the road.

When I meet HS dropouts or people who never went on to get a certification or associate’s or BA or whatever, they’re just plain stuck, for the most part, in whatever low-wage job they can get, and the tracks for promotion are limited unless they can demonstrate real effort and motivation to move up. Most of them have very poor communication and interpersonal skills, to boot. Like it or not, much of what people learn in college is how to relate to each other, and how to communicate well (write and speak) — at least for the associate’s and bachelor level. With those tools, you have more options later on.

My BA is in English (creative writing) and after working as a clerk at a law firm for a few years, I decided that time flew by the fastest when I was doing computer work. So, I started grad school for an MIS, started getting internships after the first year (this is key, because academics+work experience makes you a potent job seeker). I got my master’s after 7 years of night school, taking the most technical track I could, working days as a tech writer and software engineer (no engineering degree!) and going to school at night. I got promoted to management the year after I finished my grad school, and now I manage a team of nine engineers. I make decent money and the hours are good.

All along the way, I had side-jobs as a janitor, cook, newspaper delivery guy, gas station attendant and haberdasher. My point is that as long as you’re working on getting what you want, you’re working. It takes a long time, but if you can focus a little on what you want, delay gratification until you’ve positioned yourself for the next step, and be a good communicator, you’ll likely not have any problem getting some kind of job that works for you. The unemployment rate for college grads is much lower than that for HS grads, and the average salary is double or higher. Go, get an education, and pick your way. Reply

@ninjagin: guess you don’t know many $180k / year techies. Of my friends, the guys with the least education are working for NVIDIA, Netflix and UCSC respectively as and us college guys are in teaching, social work, food service or unemployed. So “go get an education” but it doesn’t have to be at a school. Reply

Zanzan42 approved this comment

@ninjagin: Everyone’s mileage will very. I dropped out of high school my junior year to work for a web startup. I ended up being pilfered by a web hosting startup, got a piece of ownership, and did well when we sold the place 3 years later. Now, I’m 28 making six figures as a CTO with no college degree and a nice retirement account.

School isn’t for everyone, and most people have been sold a false bill of goods that college = well paying job. That’s just not the case. Reply

Zanzan42 approved this comment

Well, I’ve actually considered doing something else, janitor, cleaning or a UPS guy would be nice since you don’t have to think that much, AND when you’re done for the day, you’re DONE! That’s the beauty of it! Reply

Zanzan42 promoted this comment

@SneWs: I think about that all the time. There is a good argument for digging ditches (or whatever) and then being done for the day, so you can pursue the activities that fulfill you after work is done.

Office Space espoused that philosophy. Reply

By the time I finished my Ph.D. (Biology) I was kind of burnt on academia and was happy to find a job doing something different. I work with academics all the time, so it’s not irrelevant, but I definitely did end up with more education than I need. But I didn’t know that yet at the point I could have jumped ship with a Masters. Reply

This reminds me of the joke,
How to you find an English major in a crowded room?
Stick you hand up and yell “Hey waiter!” Reply

This is a result of way too many ‘private’ colleges. No-name colleges in the boonies that charge you $20,000/yr for a paralegal certificate.

For a long time I’ve argued that these places should be shut-down because they’re essentially ponzi/scams. If a person can’t get into a state school which have abhorrently low standards as is, then that’s it you’re done; that person is better off in a vocational program. This is a model used around the world. From there they enter their industry with much lower debt, on a much better track. Reply

@mangonights: I suppose a Harvard degree is a paralegal certificate, huh?

Look, what you’re saying is true to a limited degree, but there are quite a few decent private schools out there that are willing to give good scholarships to people who deserve it. Reply

I’d be interested to know what kind of PhD though. I mean, a PhD in Nuclear Engineering vs. a PhD in Psychology is a big difference. Reply

@Arggh! there goes a…snake a snake!: Clearly you don’t have a PhD or you never would have had made this statement. Reply

Zanzan42 promoted this comment

@drharrycaul: There’s a reason why The Big Bang Theory manifests a pecking order based on which field the various characters’ degrees are in. Reply

@Zanzan42: A comedy sitcom used for evidence…. and here I didn’t think it could get worse than citing wikipedia. Thanks for proving me wrong! 🙂 Reply

Zanzan42 promoted this comment

Perhaps one thing to take into account is the number of people who know what their degree is for. Universities tend to build their graduates up for research. This means we have a skill set that is tailored towards literacy, teaching, innovating and self-directed work as opposed to practical work, following instructions, and team-work. Ideally, I think the Unis want their undergraduate students to become PhDs then to work at the Uni doing teaching or research. As a result, graduates potentially don’t have the knowledge/experience required for many non-academic jobs. Unfortunately, many people incorrectly think that higher education is necessary for jobs in the workforce. It is, however, necessary for jobs in research. As someone earlier said, to speculate that we perhaps “place too much importance on higher education” is rather silly, and we should instead learn what it is important for. Reply

Hvedhrungr approved this comment

Anybody have an opinion on doing Law School and Medical School in the US following a finance/biology double major? Reply

Hvedhrungr promoted this comment

@diw321: On a hunch, I’d recommend law over medicine simply for the difference that after finishing law, you can get to work. After finishing medicine, you’re still a trainee. Reply

@diw321: For Med school, I’d strongly think about what state you want to end up practicing in. This will have a huge impact on your career. For instance, malpractice insurance vary widely between states. Reply

@diw321: As for my career aspirations, I want to practice malpractice law for a hospital. Reply

Now show the numbers of college grads who work ‘professional’ jobs that have nothing to do with their original field of study. I work in software development, and our team lead has an advanced degree in chemistry. Our QA lab manager has a degree in liberal arts.

Unless you’re a doctor, lawyer, or engineer (and sometimes not even then) all your degree (you BA/S anyway) means is that you can set a complex long term goal and achieve it (or that you have rich parents). It really has very little bearing on what kind of job you are fit to work…much less WILL work…

Degrees can help you get an interview, YOU have to get the job…and after that YOU have to keep it.

In the vast majority of fields, a 5 year veteren with no degree is probably just as competent as a 5 year veteren who has one…and after 10+ years it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference… Reply

I’ve been reading Giz for months, and this is the first time i’m posting, I just had to comment on this one.

Alright, i’m from India. From my perspective, the problem seems to be two things

1) The ridiculous cost of a College Degree in the U.S. I know it’s unfair to compare cost here and there, but out here to get a Bachelors Degree, it costs approximately 1000$, which is peanuts compared to 10,000$-250,000$. Granted, the quality of the education is 1/10th of the quality in the U.S, but most of the people studying Bachelors go for exactly that – a degree, which will help them financially. They don’t care that much about ‘learning’ and ‘knowledge’ they want the education so that they can make money, to feed family and live a comfortable life. I get a feeling a part of the large cost (other than labour + economic climate) is that people who go to college from a purely financial standpoint, pay for a lot more than the required knowledge to get hired/make money.

2) The job climate, not only in the U.S. but around the world currently is undermining the value of a degree. I have a cousin who did I think a Bachelor in Science, without getting top grades. Since the job climate out here is also quite bad, he has to settle for a call center job, a job I (a 17 yo in HS) could easily get, and get the same pay as him. If the job climate were better, he could get a job more suited to his skills which would pay better. Which reveals a possible flaw in this post/study – the date of the research is not mentioned and is not compared to other years of non recession.

The thing is, the deeper you go into education, the more specific your education gets, the narrower the number of jobs suited to your skills/degrees and therefore much, much more volatility in job availability depending on the economy’s mood. Which could explain the (IMO temporarily) employed PHD janitors.

My First Giz Post 🙂 Something tells me my life is now ruined. Reply

MikeHTiger approved this comment

@goodwood8: I think you nailed the issue.
I also want to compliment you on your stellar command of English and spot-on analysis of the issue. 

And I hope you don’t settle for a call center job. Reply

@Hvedhrungr: Thanks! I guess the stereotypical Apu like Indian English isn’t always true. But to be fair, I know a lot about this because i’ll be going to college next year.

Although i’d love to say “Hello i’m Dave from AT&T” in a mockingly American accent, I don’t think I’d ever settle for a call center job :P. Reply

The problem I’m having right now as an active college student.. is EXPERIENCE. Even grocery stores are only looking for EXPERIENCED BAGGERS. How the hell do I get experience if everybody is only looking to hire people that have experience.

I bet you my loft-style apartment next to train tracks that I can fix a computer better than anybody at the best buy 10 minutes from here. But no.. they’re looking to hire people who can sell stuff rather than fix it. “A salesman who can fix a computer” is more important than “A technician who is a salesman”. Screw that. They have a bad reputation anyway.

Even the local gamestop would rather hire somebody who has experience in retail, than a 23 year old lifetime gamer.

This is why so many Americans are jobless. The businesses. Ironic isn’t it? Reply

Hvedhrungr promoted this comment

@Chris Hill: The issue is that a lot of recruiters copy from each other. They don’t think for themselves, they’re told what and, in some cases, whom to hire.

I’m finishing up medical school and I sent out some applications. There are hospitals that have buried my application under 3 months’ worth of paperwork, and they keep telling they’ll get to it, I shouldn’t worry (and not sign with anyone else). What am I supposed to do while I’m waiting?

Then there are hospitals who got back to me within a week. Please come and visit, have a chat, all expenses paid.

My grades aren’t stellar, but stable. I’ve done a lot of teaching and extracurricular things. That’s what a lot of recruiters look for, I’ve found. Once they like your photograph.
That is the biggest issue, and the one you should spend the most money on: Get a good picture taken, and put it on the front page. Not too prominently, but noticeable. Reply

@Hvedhrungr: Are you finishing medical school or residency? Are you going for something non-clinical? Reply

Hvedhrungr promoted this comment

@gamingdoctor: Finishing medical school, although it’s a little different in Germany compared to the US. I’m applying for a radiological residency.
I may end up going to the Netherlands or the UK, though. Reply

@Hvedhrungr: are you talking about putting a picture of yourself on the front of your resume? I’ve never heard of doing that Reply

Tip your multiple-degree bartender well. He knows that is not your wife.
And that she needs another drink. Reply 

Zanzan42 promoted this comment

At least they let the guy in the picture bring his dog to work. Reply

@Gary_7vn: …what?

Oh, I see what you did there. Reply

We sweep & mop floors, but we think very deep & profound thoughts while doing so.

Also, if we were interested in money, we would have become business men, not haunters of libraries and little known web sites. Reply

slyman928 promoted this comment

i would -love- to see how these numbers break down by what the degrees are in.

my money’s on some large fraction of them being for liberal arts & social sciences (think english, history, anthropology, and other degrees that pretty much only lead to academic jobs, or none at all).

while the “janitor scribbling some mathematical proof” may sound like a good story, the fact is, if you are smart enough to have a degree in math, you’re not a janitor, UNLESS you also have some major mental problems…. Reply

OddManOut promoted this comment

@apierion: I knew a guy once who had a college degree in physics and was a janitor. He owned, believe it or not, a janitorial business and made about $200k a year. But he also felt it was important that he work shifts like all of his employees so that he knew what was up on the job and that his people knew he wasn’t asking any more of them than he was willing to do himself.

Just cause you choose to push a mop instead of keys all day doesn’t make you dumb…

But, yeah, I’ll agree that’s probably one of the outside cases… Reply

@OddManOut: The fact that he owned the business just proves my point. That takes brains and some entrepreneurship. The fact that he continued to works shifts just makes good business sense in his case, and was probably also great for the morale of his employees. Reply

In my long rant I left out that I would pay another tens of thousands of dollars to live the social life I lived in college. Worth it in friends and connections far more than the degree. Reply

Ive been in college 4.5 years of the last 10. Switched majors, dropped out and then decided to return, blah blah blah. I’m 28 now. I’m an art major, so no, it doesn’t apply to EVERYBODY, but college is a financial institution first and foremost from my experience (THE OSU). I’d much rather of had the chance (and actually, you do if you try) to shadow and apprentice with somebody in your field/interest. Obviously that doesn’t work in some of the actual degree needing jobs ( scientists, doctors, etc.) but for everything else it really does feel like a piece of paper and nothing more. I have had many grads tell me that. They could have just stayed where they interned and been as well off as not getting the degree at all. I think I was forced more by my high school teachers and parents to go to school after high school. I’m smart and I guess I kind of thought that’s what I should do. If I had the chance to start over I would have never went to school full-time and instead tried to work somewhere interesting (or even just work somewhere) and take like a class a or two a quarter and just see where I want to go slowly instead of deciding that in 4 years I will be doing what a paper tells me (which isn’t even always true). Experience trumps most degrees IMO. I currently have some bum ass warehouse job and do art on the side, but I wouldn’t consider myself miserable or lost. Just haven’t found or done what I am looking for yet. A job is a job. I work and get money and that’s that. Most school was a waste of time for me. Doing and reading are far cheaper and better in most cases. Again, I obviously would like a well trained doctor, chemist, etc. but if there was a good apprentice-ship instead for those degrees I think it would be far better.

Also, this data about PhD’s is kind of depressing but I also hate it when janitors and things are considered low (usually implied). Somebody has to do it. It’s not degrading at all IMO. In fact, it’s more important to me that we have garbage men and janitors than it is for a lot of other jobs.

^note: I am a case of investing a lot in college (well, money-wise)and not caring if I get a return from it anymore. I didn’t go for a year and give up. I went for 4.5 years and really gave it a shot before I gave up (which honestly I haven’t, because my local community college has some cool art classes that are cheap and sound fun) They are loans I am going to have to pay. BUT, I don’t think I need a degree so much anymore to pay those loans back. Reply

@MJDeviant: I don’t necessarily agree with everything you said, but I’m right there with you on feeling forced to go to college right out of high school just because you’re smart.

I grew up in a house where not going to college was never presented to me as an available option. It never occurred to me until my second year at BGSU that I didn’t technically have to suffer through this Computer Science degree if I didn’t want to, and I could just stop going and get a job instead. That’s what I did and I continued my programming studies on my own after work and on weekends, and now I’ve got a pretty awesome job doing what I like to do.

Turns out (in my particular field, anyway) that a Google search window combined with a little bit of self motivation is every bit as effective at providing an education as an overpriced university. Reply

@chefgon: CS is one of those fields where it’s completely possible to be successful (and have just as much knowledge) as the guy with the degree, without actually getting one yourself. Reply
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By Kyle VanHemert

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