Shooting Ourselves in the Foot Isn’t an Effective Engagement Strategy

data point tuesday_500

Recent headlines from Gallup proclaiming that college-educated Americans are less engaged on the job than other cohorts may have spurred some conversation among HR leaders and professionals. Engagement, that elusive component to organizational success, is the holy grail many employers chase. And Gallup, the grand surveyor of people on all topics, has regularly published engagement data that either convinces us that engagement is a fraud or that we have to try harder to win over our workforces.

A recent USA TODAY article, “Higher education = lower joy on job?” quoted Gallup findings as well as findings from this report: “Why Are Recent College Graduates Underemployed?” from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. The justaposition of these two sources shows an interesting picture.

Here’s Gallup’s data:

Gallup Engagement by Education 2013

So. According to Gallup, the most engaged group of workers are those who have earned a high school diploma or less.  And the least engaged group of workers are those who have earned a college degree. By themselves, the numbers are almost interesting. By themselves, the bigger news is that the numbers show that less than a third of the workforce is engaged, and more than two-thirds of the workforce is either not engaged or actively disengaged. OK. That’s interesting and cause for concern.

But put this Gallup data into the blender with this data from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity and it gets a little more interesting:

College Grads Underemployed 2013

If nearly half of all American workers with college degrees are in jobs that do not require a college degree, might that have something to do with their level of engagement? Are nearly half of our college educated workforce bored on the job?

And if they are, and if we’re concerned about engagement, why are we putting them into jobs for which they are overqualified? Would high school graduates be more engaged and perform better? Would those better performers positively impact the financial performance of their employers?

The Center also asserts that

“past and projected future growth in college enrollments and the number of graduates exceeds the actual or projected growth in high-skilled jobs, explain the development of the underemployment problem and its probable worsening in future years.”

So they believe the engagement problem will grow worse – if there really is a causal relationship between engagement levels and the over-qualification of many of our workers.

What do we make of this? Well, I do think it’s common sense to believe that people who are significantly over-educated for the jobs they hold could well be bored and unengaged. But I also think that in this economy, many are grateful to have any job, over-educated or not. What that means for engagement is unclear to me. Except that Gallup, being the last word in survey data, shows a clear line between education levels and engagement.

shoe with bullet holeWhile this might be above my pay grade, I’m willing to make a leap here and suggest that hiring overqualified workers might not be the best strategy for boosting engagement. If we truly believe that engaged workers have a demonstrably positive impact on an organization’s financial performance – and that’s been the HR mantra for a number of years – then we are probably shooting ourselves in the foot by requiring college degrees for jobs that truly don’t need them.

I’ve written this before: the over-inflation of job requirements in job descriptions isn’t putting the unemployed in this country back to work. And now we know it isn’t helping organizational performance. Hmmm…

I’ll bet we can agree on this:  shooting ourselves in the foot isn’t an effective engagement strategy.


Filed under Center for College Affordability and Productivity, China Gorman, Data Point Tuesday, Education Deficit, Engagement, Gallup, Job Descriptions

5 responses to “Shooting Ourselves in the Foot Isn’t an Effective Engagement Strategy

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  3. Fraser

    Like most statistical studies, the high level numbers can be misleading. First of all Gallup’s Q12 methodology does not measure engagement but satisfaction at work. Whether you equate plain satisfaction with ‘engagement’ is down to your definition…
    But beyond this, as Gerry indicates then numbers are not so far apart, which is not surprising at a high level.
    Certainly if you broke out young graduates in jobs that do not require college education, we can assume engagement levels would be low.
    Conversely if you studied tenured employees with college or advanced degrees, you would find higher levels of engagement (when compared to other education levels).
    Either way, tertiary education is still worth the investment in terms of financial rewards and personal fulfillment… but only in the longer term. A college degree is by no means a ticket to a rewarding position.

    • Fraser, I think you really hit it at the end there. A college degree provides a greater opportunity to move up in the workplace, so graduates have the opportunity to be engaged further down the road, but are clearly often dissatisfied with an entry level position that does not yet meet the candidates potential.

      That being said, China’s proposal to better align job requirements with the actual requirements of a position strikes me as a smart move.

  4. Looking at those numbers you’ve shared, I have to wonder if there is statistical support for claiming that the difference in engagement scores by education is truly significant…or simply a by product of ‘chance’.

    As one variable in a much more complex equation, I can understand that the size of the gap between what a person has been trained to do and what they are actually doing could show up in an ‘engagement’ score.

    That said, we might first question whether the assumption that the nearly 1/2 [college] graduates who are employed below their capabilities really are that much more ‘qualified’ for complex work than high school grads…who’ve had four years to mature doing something else than college.

    . I doubt we’re talking about graduates from IT, Engineering and Accounting programs. I would posit that they are primarily well hired to do what they’ve been trained to do and not among those noted as working below their educational requirements…with a few exceptions. I’m guessing that depending on other variables like work environment, their engagement scores would be higher.

    So then college grads with the lower engagement scores working in lesser jobs were apparently educated but not necessarily trained for a specific occupation. They are more likely still exploring career options, learning about work and in need of a different style of management than a high school grad with 4 years work experience under their belt who has probably fully explored these options and is likely coping with multiple plans…and perhaps more likely to be at least a little more engaged.

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