Over the past century, the world has collectively made a historic investment in the formal education of its now 7.5 billion people. The global talent pool consists of a growing number of people who hold formally accredited qualifications in core basic skills as well as advanced qualifications across an increasingly diverse portfolio of specializations. As presented in Figure 7, dis-aggregated by generation, it is evident that, on average, most countries are close to achieving universal primary education and are moving towards universal secondary education, driven at times by focused international efforts. Some countries have expanded their talent pools across generations in particularly striking ways—among them Singapore, Korea, Rep., Malaysia, Bahrain, Serbia, Bolivia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Islamic Rep., Egypt and Botswana. While available data does not account for alternative modes of learning such as informal apprenticeships, learning on-the-job and traditional knowledge systems—which have traditionally provided learning and training opportunities for millions of workers with little formal, curriculum-based qualifications10—it quantifies the unquestionable, widening benefits of providing curriculum-driven education to people globally. The demographic weightings reward countries according to the investment and its outcomes by the size of the cohort.
Figure 7: Capacity subindex score, by age group
This is not to say that quality aspects are neutrally distributed across each population. Socio-economic disadvantages commonly translate to less access to quality education with subsequent effect on life outcomes. For example, in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), on average socially disadvantaged11 students are 2.8 times less likely to achieve basic competence in science. Despite variation in the size of the penalty for socio-economic disadvantage, across the already affluent OECD countries disadvantaged students underperform consistently.12
There is also variation in the degree to which countries have been successful in building human capital capacity through tertiary education and preparing their populations for work in a complex global economy. When it comes to the absolute size of tertiary educated talent pools, countries with large populations continue to dominate, making India, China and the Untied States the largest global providers of tertiary degree holders of any description. Within countries, the density of tertiary degree holders varies, with Japan, the United States and the Russian Federation being the most populous economies in which more than a quarter of the working-age population age 25 and over hold tertiary degrees. In Japan, almost 50% of the population hold a tertiary degree; in the United States, 31%. By contrast, in China and India 10% and 8% of the population, respectively, hold a tertiary degree.
Globally, the number of tertiary educated individuals is on the rise. This indicates an expanding, diverse pool of talent with the potential to drive economic growth through specialization and expertise. Yet even as more and more individuals advance their skills through diverse specialization tracks in formal education, our understanding of how those formal qualifications become distributed across industries and geographies and how skills develop further in the workplace has been limited.
Any one individual in the labour market has skills—some developed through the education system and some on the job. The initial stage of specialization for an individual learner occurs at the upper end of secondary school and continues into tertiary education. The Forum’s research partnership with LinkedIn reveals new dimensions of how degree specializations have evolved across generations, across economies and across industries.
In Figure 8, LinkedIn data reveals the diversity of degree specializations among generations. Within the broader scope of expansion of higher education between generations, there has also been a shift in the choices made by students on which subjects to specialize in as well as an expansion of the set of degrees on offer. The degree titles listed in Figure 8 are summarized classifications derived from undergraduate degrees listed by LinkedIn members globally, and the proportions represent the share of those across various age groups who hold such degrees. Some fields of specialization, such as business administration and management, see continued substantial representation by age group across all generations. Others such as economics have declined as the proportion of degrees amongst younger generations. Degrees such as computer science have been growing as a proportion of the degrees held by younger generations. Finally, degrees such as psychology have resurged as a proportion of the degrees held by the youngest cohorts, matching the popularity they once held amongst the oldest cohorts after having dipped among the middle cohorts. The growing diversification of degrees as a whole reflects the increasing demand for specific skill sets in the wider economy over the last decades. However, as skills instability and career changes across professions become the norm and lifelong learning becomes a vital need across economies, policy-makers, businesses and individuals may need to reconsider the trend towards deeper specialization within first-time degrees. Instead there may need to be a stronger focus on broad-based learning and cross-functional skills in first-time degrees, followed by deeper specialization across the life course.
Figure 8: LinkedIn membership by age and field of study, top 100 degrees, percent
Figure 9 displays the spread of degrees across industries. Some industries appear to hire from a wider pool of degrees. These include Consumer, Media, Entertainment and Information, Professional Services and Mobility Industries as well as the Public Sector and Non-Profits. On the other hand, Energy, Financial Services and Investment, Healthcare and Information, as well as Entertainment and Telecoms industries hire from a narrower pool of degree specializations.
Figure 9: LinkedIn membership by industry and field of study, percent
Figure 10 displays the spread of degrees across countries. Business, Administration and Law; Social Sciences, Journalism and Information; as well as Information and Communication Technologies dominate the most popular specializations across all labour markets. Some countries have greater diversity than others when it comes to tertiary degrees. Economies in South America are among the most likely to have a focused specialization in Business, Administration and Law, especially in some of South America’s largest economies, such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Colombia. On the other hand, some of the countries in which students are more likely to have pursued a specialization in Arts and Humanities are the United Kingdom, Ireland, Denmark, the United States, Canada, New Zealand and France. Countries that are home to large tertiary-educated talent pools specialized in Engineering, Manufacturing and Construction include economies with high demand for petrochemical engineers such as Qatar, Brunei Darussalam, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia and Bahrain.
Figure 10: LinkedIn membership by field of study and geography, percent
Given the increasing availability of such nuanced data from online talent platforms and professional networks such as LinkedIn, there are significant opportunities for universities, governments and employers to enter into deeper and more informed dialogue focused on aligning the requirements for work-ready degree specializations.13