No college diploma? No job, even as a file clerk

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Posted: Tuesday, March 26, 2013 12:00 am

ATLANTA —The college degree is becoming the new high school diploma: the new minimum requirement, albeit an expensive one, for getting even the lowest-level job.

Consider the 45-person law firm of Busch, Slipakoff & Schuh here in Atlanta. Like many other employers across the country, the firm hires only people with a bachelor's degree, even for jobs that do not require college-level skills.

This prerequisite applies to everyone, including the receptionist, paralegals, administrative assistants and file clerks. Even the office “runner” — the in-house courier who, for $10 an hour, schleps documents back and forth between the courthouse and the office — got a four-year degree.

“College graduates are just more career-oriented,” said Adam Slipakoff, the firm's managing partner. “Going to college means they are making a real commitment to their futures. They're not just looking for a paycheck.”

“Degree inflation,” as economist call it, has been steadily infiltrating America's job market. Across industries and geographic areas, many other jobs that didn't used to require a diploma — positions like dental hygienists, cargo agents, clerks and claims adjusters — are increasingly requiring one, according to Burning Glass, a company that analyzes job ads from more than 20,000 online sources.

This is pushing the less educated even further down the food chain, and it helps explain why the unemployment rate for workers with no more than a high school diploma is more than twice that for workers with a bachelor's degree: 8.1 percent versus 3.7 percent.

Some jobs, like those in supply chain management and logistics, have become more technical and so require more advanced skills than they did in the past. But more broadly, because so many people are going to college now, those who do not graduate are often assumed to be unambitious or less capable.

Plus, it's a buyer's market for employers.

“When you get 800 resumes for every job ad, you need to weed them out somehow,” said Suzanne Manzagol, executive recruiter at Cardinal Recruiting Group, which does headhunting for administrative positions in the Atlanta area.

Even if they are not exactly applying the knowledge they gained in their political science, finance and fashion marketing classes, the young graduates employed by Busch, Slipakoff & Schuh say they are grateful for even the rotest of rote office work they have been given.

“It sure beats washing cars,” said Landon Crider, 24, the firm's soft-spoken runner. He would know: He spent several years, while at Georgia State and in the months after graduation, scrubbing sedans at Enterprise Rent-a-Car.

The risk with hiring college graduates for jobs they are supremely overqualified for is, of course, that they will leave as soon as they find something better.

Slipakoff said his firm had little turnover, though, largely because it has been expanding so rapidly. The company has grown to more than 30 lawyers from five in 2008, plus a support staff of about 15. Promotions have abounded.

“They expect you to grow, and they want you to grow,” said Ashley Atkinson, who graduated from Georgia Southern University in 2009 with a general studies degree. “You're not stuck here under some glass ceiling.”

Within a year of being hired as a file clerk, Atkinson was promoted twice to positions in marketing and office management. Crider, the runner, was given additional work helping with copying and billing claims. He said he wanted to learn more about the legal industry since he plans to apply to law school.

The firm's greatest success story is Laura Burnett, who in less than a year went from being a file clerk to being the firm's paralegal for the litigation group. She did not ask for the promotion, but the partners were so impressed with her filing wizardry that they figured she could handle it.

“They gave me a raise, too,” said Burnett, a 2011 graduate of the University of West Georgia.

Besides the promotional pipelines it creates, setting a floor of college attainment also creates a clubbier office social atmosphere, Slipakoff said. There is a lot of trash-talking of one another's college football teams, for example. And this year the office's Christmas tree ornaments were a colorful menagerie of college mascots — Gators, Blue Devils, Yellow Jackets, Wolves, Eagles, Tigers, Panthers.

“You know, if we had someone here with just a GED or something, I can see how they might feel slighted by the social atmosphere here,” he said. “There really is something sort of cohesive or binding about the fact that all of us went to college.”

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