Mary Beth Marklein, USA TODAY
American workers who have a college degree are less likely than workers with just a high school diploma to feel enthusiastic about their jobs, and that's "bad for the U.S. economy," a new report says.
The trend holds no matter how much workers make or how old they are, says the report by Gallup Education, a division of the research and polling company. It's based on surveys of more than 150,000 American adults conducted in 2012.
On average, fewer than a third of American workers are emotionally invested in their work, the survey suggests. But the key driver for the lower levels of engagement among college-educated workers centered on one factor: College graduates were far less likely to agree with the statement "At work I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day" than those with less than a college degree.
That was "a real eye-opener," says Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education.
A number of recent reports suggest that many college graduates are overqualified for their jobs. One, a study based on 2010 Labor Department data by the non-profit Center for College Affordability and Productivity, found that 41.7 million college graduates were in the labor force but only 28.6 million jobs required a college degree.
The Gallup report recommends "building a better pipeline between colleges and workplaces." Busteed adds that educators have a responsibility to help students play to their strengths.
"Something about college is taking people further away from doing what they're best at ... as opposed to bringing them closer to it," he says.
The study defines employees as engaged with their jobs if their responses to various questions show they are "involved and enthusiastic about their work." They are not engaged if responses show they are satisfied with their workplaces but "not emotionally connected to them," and they are actively disengaged if they are "emotionally disconnected."
On average, 30% of American employees are engaged at work, but levels of engagement diverge when education was a factor.
• Workers with a high school diploma or less were more likely to be engaged (33%) and college graduates were less likely (28%). Engagement rebounded slightly, to 30%, among workers with a postgraduate degree or postgraduate training -- perhaps because those students have found a particular passion, Busteed speculates.
• More than half of all workers (52%) were not engaged in their jobs, including 48.2% of those with a high school diploma or less and 55% of college graduates.
• Workers with college degrees were less likely to be actively disengaged in their jobs (17%) than those who did not attend or finish college (19%).
• Americans across all levels of education were most likely to be engaged at work if they held a managerial position. Among college graduates, transportation workers were the least engaged (16%)
• Among managers or executives, those whose education ended in high school diploma or less were most engaged (41%).
Tom Bowling, vice president for student affairs at Frostburg State University in Frostburg, Md., says colleges should encourage students to explore their talents and passions.
"We don't take the time to understand who our students are and what they're bringing to the campus," he says. "Students can become very adept at meeting the expectations of others, and we reinforce that."