College Guide


December 10, 2012 11:21 AM The Supply and Demand for Dental Hygienists

By Daniel Luzer

American employers are more and more seeking to hire employees with bachelor’s degrees. This is true even for jobs where, strictly speaking, those degrees aren’t necessary to do the job properly.

According to a piece by Shereen Marisol Meraji at Marketplace:

In the past five years, there’s been a 175 percent jump in the number of online job ads looking for dental lab technicians with a bachelor’s degree. You want to buy and sell farm equipment? More ads want college grads for those jobs, too. How about cargo and freight agents? Yep, same thing there.

What does this mean? Well, it’s hard to say.

If employers are looking for people with bachelor’s degrees, well, that’s what they want to hire and we need simply to acknowledge that reality. Back in July, 2009 President Barack Obama set a goal that the United States be the country with the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

What he means by college graduates is actually here rather vague, perhaps deliberately so, but the goal is set. The need for this increase in the number of college graduates is based on several reports about the number of new jobs in America that will require college degrees.

If we’re going to create public policy based on this, and spend extensive federal (and personal) money to make this happen, it’s worth considering what this is really about. Does someone need a bachelor’s degree to be a better dental hygienist? Does it make America’s teeth healthier if people have bachelor’s degrees? Does it save lives? Is it worth $10,000 worth of student loans?

I’m often critical of those “too many people going to college” articles because they so often focus on bartenders and waiters with temporary jobs. But these jobs, dental hygienists, are real professorial jobs. People aren’t getting them because they can’t find their dream job yet; that is their dream job. Are they any better at it if they have a bachelor’s degree? Furthermore, do we, as a society need them to get a bachelor’s degree? Is this an important thing to work on for education policy?

What’s really going on here are two things. In one sense in the last 20 years we’ve seen many American jobs become much more complicated. The people who hire for such jobs (understandably) begin to assume that such jobs (dental hygienists and event planers and freight agents) need to be filled by people with college degrees. This is, frankly, pretty questionable.

A recent analysis of American jobs from Burning Glass, a company that analyzes job ads, found that some of the following jobs are much more likely to require college degrees than they were in five years ago:

Dental Laboratory Technicians
Chemical Equipment Operators and Tenders
Medical Equipment Preparers
Dental Hygienists
Cargo and Freight Agents
Claims Adjusters, Examiners and Investigators

Perhaps college does provide America with significantly better medical equipment preparers or photographers (I should add that journalism is totally one of those we-didn’t-used-to-require-college-but-now-we-pretty-much-do jobs) but I sort of doubt it.

This looks to be another one of those tales of the American workplace so familiar to readers in the 21st century. The job is essentially the same; employers simply require that employees develop more and more skills to get that job. But the skills are those the employee is going to have to acquire, and pay for, on his own. What’s more, despite this proliferation of college degrees, he’s not getting paid any more than his predecessors did back when college wasn’t necessary. The average dental hygienist, in fact, appears to make less money than she did 20 years ago (though it’s not really clear how the presence of a college degree would play into the pay scale).

This isn’t the worst thing in the world, employers have every incentive to get as much training and education in their employees for as little money as possible.

But there’s no reason policy has to support every whim of employers. Just because an employer wants a college degree does not mean that the job requires a college degree. It also doesn’t mean America needs policy to encourage people to get more degrees. Perhaps it needs policy to encourage employers to be more realistic.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • seriously on December 10, 2012 10:22 PM:

    It's hard for me to see this as a negative trend, particularly if one subscribes to the "liberal arts" ideal of a college education as something that trains you to be a more thoughtful, well-rounded person. And even if you don't, I can think of scenarios in which I'd rather have a dental lab technician or dental hygienist who has had a couple of college biology or human anatomy courses, or a chemical equipment operator who has more than a high-school general chemistry course acquaintance with chemistry, or a claims examiner who has been required to analyze something (yes, even, for instance, a work of poetry) at a reasonably high intellectual level.

  • jheartney on December 11, 2012 12:12 AM:

    The article dances around the elephant in the room. We are multiple years into an economic slowdown, and beyond that, public policy for decades has been designed to reduce the power of labor. This on top of a long-term trend of technology both removing many job classifications, or allowing them to be outsourced to cheaper labor markets overseas.

    We have far more job-seekers than jobs, so employers want simple, quick ways to winnow job application piles. No degree? Out. Over 50? Out. This isn't because there's something in the jobs requiring younger applicants with degrees. It's just a way of making hiring decisions manageable in an era of labor oversupply.