As the nation began to rebound from pandemic-induced shutdowns, millions of workers without college degrees were left behind even while employers scrambled to fill open jobs.
That disconnect has imperiled companies' chances to grow and left potential workers struggling to land jobs. For many of these individuals, finding their place in the economy feels like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
During the 2008 recession, workers with a high school diploma or less lost 5.6 million jobs, according to America's Divided Recovery, a 2016 report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce; only 80,000 of those slots were recovered. As the economy improved from January 2010 to January 2016, 99 percent of the jobs created were for those with at least some college education.
Similarly, as the economy retracted during COVID-19-related shutdowns, workers with a high school diploma took a big hit on jobs. The unemployment rate for those workers peaked during the pandemic at 17.6 percent, compared with 8.4 percent for college graduates, according to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Economists estimate that in 2031, the nation will have 171 million jobs. But only 30 percent of them will be open to workers without college degrees.
"There will be fewer [jobs available to high school grads] in the future. That decline has been going on since 1983," notes Tony Carnevale, founder and director of Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce and one of the authors of the 2016 report.
In the 1970s, about 70 percent of "good jobs" were open to workers whose formal education ended after high school. By 2031, that figure will be just 30 percent, says Carnevale, who defines "good jobs" as those that pay about $35,000 in today's dollars. Put another way, in 2031, 70 percent of workers with a college degree will have a good job, 40 percent of those with some post-high school education will have a good job and just 2 percent of those with a high school diploma will have a good job.
That's not to say there will be no opportunities for people without a college education. Many companies in tech, construction, manufacturing and other sectors are bullish on the prospects for workers without college degrees—and the potential they represent.
For those without post-secondary degrees, the doors to good jobs began closing with the 1983 recession.
Globalization moved many high-paying manufacturing jobs, which were once held by high school graduates, to other countries. "Lower-level manufacturing left the country, and what's left requires more training, requires computer skills," says Harry J. Holzer, a professor at the Georgetown University McCourt School of Public Policy.
The pandemic exacerbated the problem because many white-collar workers were able to work from home while blue-collar workers had to go to their jobs in the middle of the public health crisis—if they had jobs at all amid the shutdown. "If you're a cop, you can't call the robber and say, 'You're under arrest,' " Carnevale says.
Labor force participation during the pandemic dropped 4.3 percent for those with no more than a high school diploma, according to the Congressional Research Service. This figure represents the largest loss among education levels.
Holzer says some of the reasons people are unemployed in the wake of the pandemic are because they have health concerns about going back to work, because the pandemic reshaped their priorities, or because they don't have the credentials for in-demand jobs like long-haul truck driver or phlebotomist.
Carnevale says technological change, which has only accelerated since the 1980s, started making it harder for those without training to land jobs. A car mechanic, for instance, now needs computer skills because cars and repairs have gone high-tech, and more certification is needed to work in the field. At the same time, manufacturing companies need fewer people as they automate repetitive tasks, but the jobs require more education to run the machinery.
Automation, which ramped up during the pandemic, will eliminate about 8 percent to 10 percent of all jobs over the next 10 years, Carnevale predicts. And 30 percent to 40 percent of jobs will see a change in tasks and activities.
That could lead to even more barriers for those without college degrees, because of a perception by hiring managers that college graduates are more trainable. Companies "are not looking for the best welder, but the welder who can adapt to changes in the technology," Carnevale says.
Jobs like welding that require skilled labor are among the areas that hold promise for high school graduates who can get the proper training. Other areas include health care, advanced manufacturing and transportation logistics, Holzer says.
Tech is another promising sector for people without college degrees. Google, for example, has trained 7 million people since 2017 through an initiative called Grow with Google, according to program founder Lisa Gevelber. The free professional certificate program, which is open to anyone, was designed so noncollege-educated workers could access high-paying jobs in growing fields. About half the participants come from the lowest third of earners and make $30,000 or less per year. They can graduate from the program, generally in about three to six months, and be hired by companies in jobs that pay an average of nearly $70,000 annually, Gevelber says.
The certificate program also helps companies tap into more-diverse candidate pools, opening doors for individuals who would otherwise be weeded out because of a lack of educational credentials.
"We built this to create an equitable and inclusive job market. When you require a bachelor's degree for a job, you automatically eliminate 70 percent of African-American workers, 80 percent of Latinos and about 70 percent of rural Americans," Gevelber says.
Grow with Google focuses on four areas: IT support, data analytics, user-experience design and project management. Those fields account for 1 million open jobs in the U.S. Within six months of finishing the training, 82 percent of learners had gotten a new job or a raise or had experienced some other positive change, according to program literature. Additionally, the certificates can be stacked together to earn credits toward college degrees.
Students pay about $39 a month for the training, and some companies reimburse the cost. Program content lends itself to virtual instruction, and open jobs in the fields can be found at a range of businesses all over the country.
"Part of what we're hoping is to create pathways into in-demand jobs for people without degrees," Gevelber says.
Merit America, a nonprofit that trains low-wage workers for skilled jobs, focuses on similar tech fields: IT, data analytics, Java development and tech sales. Clients of the nonprofit are often struggling in industries like retail and hospitality with no upward mobility, says Leila Marakechi, chief business officer.
In addition to online training, Merit America offers one-on-one coaching and virtual small-group meetings to teach soft skills such as interviewing, resume writing, teamwork and conflict resolution.
Merit America is funded mostly by donations, but employers that use the organization as a staffing firm also contribute to the initiative. Learners pay nothing upfront but are asked to repay a portion of the training if they get a good job, Marakechi says. As is the case with the Google program, learners can balance Merit America's 14- to 30-week virtual programs with their work and family life.
Marakechi wants other organizations to see it's possible to achieve workforce development at scale. "We are hoping to show the country there is a viable model to make sure we are giving access to these opportunities to get good jobs to the 54 million stuck in low-wage work."
But it's not just tech jobs that hold promise for noncollege-educated individuals.
Ken Rusk is the owner of several Toledo, Ohio-based construction companies that operate under the umbrella of Rusk Industries Inc. He sees great opportunity in skilled-labor jobs for high school graduates. Rusk is the author of a book on job opportunities called Blue Collar Cash (HarperCollins, 2020) and offers online training for managers on how to work with nonskilled employees.
"There has never been a better time to enter a blue-collar field," says Rusk, who has hired 2,500 workers over his 40-year career. "In the mid-'80s, they got rid of shop class in high school and almost accidentally ended high school kids' opportunity to discover those fields like carpentry, cooking and welding. Instead of building treehouses, kids now are building pixels on video games like Minecraft."
Lack of exposure to fields requiring skilled labor and many parents' obsession with their children getting a college degree has created a shortage of workers, he explains. "Now it's almost stigmatized if you don't go to college," Rusk says. Indeed, the number of workers with a bachelor's degree or higher more than doubled from 1989 to 2016, according to the Georgetown survey.
That's not just a result of helicopter parenting. Carnevale points out that in 1979, a worker with a college degree earned 39 percent more over a lifetime than a high school graduate. Now the gap is wider at 90 percent more pay.
But college isn't for everyone, including Rusk. "I just liked to be outside working with my hands. If you put a tool in my hand, I can control my output," he says. "I'm not anti-college. I'm just trying to get the balance back."
As electricians retire or leave the profession, not enough new ones are entering, Rusk says. "That's creating demand, and skilled workers can leverage that for healthy pay if they can get the training needed."
But companies first need to rethink job requirements. College degrees shouldn't be required for jobs that don't really need them, says Robert Lerman, an economist and fellow at the think tank Urban Institute. Using degrees as a screening tool serves to eliminate potential star employees. "Finding the gems is a more intensive process, but companies will find it rewarding," says Lerman, who works with companies to set up apprenticeship programs.
'Fishing for People'
Company leaders have room to improve in making their workplaces attractive and accessible to potential hires, Rusk says. His company literally hires ditch diggers—they dig around homes to turn dank basements into larger, livable spaces.
"These workers have so many choices. You're fishing for people," he says. And the bait better be tasty.
Rusk offers 401(k) retirement benefits for workers after just 30 days on the job, and he has a roving private chef who motors from jobsite to jobsite to cater meals. Companies also need to ease up on the old-school hierarchical management system to create a positive company culture, Rusk says, explaining, "They're not going to put up with a mean old boss anymore."
Another way Rusk creates a positive workplace culture is through a giant board for employee goals that fills a hallway. These aren't work goals but life goals, like saving for a car or a trip to Ireland, paying down debt, or adding a back deck to their house. The payroll department then sets aside some of their wages for their goals.
"Most places don't give a rat's a-- about who you are," Rusk says. "They don't talk about your future. You're living for Friday each week. If a company is willing to get involved in creating the you that you want to be, you're going to say, 'I like it here because I'm accomplishing things for myself.' "
The introduction of technology has had some benefits in attracting workers. Rusk points out that as jobs become more high-tech and less physically demanding, women are beginning to find the skilled trades more appealing. Still, more needs to be done in educating potential workers that manufacturing jobs have changed.
"People have to understand [that] with technology, working in a steel mill isn't what it used to be with dodging buckets of molten lava," Rusk says.
Advice for Employers
What solutions could help marry companies desperate for labor with workers looking for a niche in a changed economy? Paying more and offering benefits such as child care and paid leave would help lure more talent, Holzer says, as would providing steady hours and flexibility for employees to handle family emergencies.
But at the heart of the solution, he and other experts say, is retraining—whether that involves partnering with community colleges, embracing in-house apprenticeships or offering other programs that can boost workers into the jobs that companies badly need to fill.
Unions used to provide training, Holzer points out, but their influence has waned. No one has filled that gap, and smaller companies often can't afford to conduct training. "Employers are complaining more about training and lack of skills while they provide less of it on the job," he says.
Part of the reason employers are reluctant to train their workers is because they fear that doing so will increase the likelihood that those employees will be hired away by competitors. Plus, Holzer notes, as jobs get more complicated, some training can't be provided on the job.
Employers may have underused tuition benefits as a pathway for connecting students to occupations where jobs are available. Community college programs can help when they offer dual high school and college credit for courses, Lerman says. Holzer recommends that companies set up partnerships with community colleges to make sure schools are teaching the specific skills the organization needs.
San Antonio, Texas, nonprofits, for instance, set up Project Qwest to help train low-income people through community college courses while helping them with not only tuition but also child care and transportation expenses.
Companies can't just sit on the sidelines waiting for perfectly trained employees to appear, Holzer says. Instead, they should take steps such as paying for workers' community college classes and offering more training on the job. "Employers do need to step up to the plate more," he says.
Businesses should think about apprenticeship programs like they do research and development—as an investment in the future. Apprenticeships, which last longer than internships, teach competency in areas where companies need talent. By snapping up high school graduates, employers can also teach skills like teamwork and good work habits to young people. In-house apprenticeships have the advantage of teaching the specific processes of that company.
"Most employers that did adopt apprenticeships reported ancillary benefits such as an improved pipeline of skilled workers, improved productivity of co-workers and improved firm culture," notes Lerman, citing a survey from the U.S. Department of Labor. Although apprenticeships carry the risk that, once trained, the workers will leave to work for competitors, Lerman says the training breeds loyalty.
Staffing firms and groups like the Urban Institute can help companies set up apprenticeship programs. Government benefits associated with the programs are sometimes available, and some states, such as South Carolina, offer firms consulting help to start programs.
While employees need to do their part to solve the disconnect between idled workers and empty jobs, so do employers.
"Companies have to think about doing things differently—whether it's better pay and benefits or helping [workers] get the skills they need," Holzer says.
Tamara Lytle is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area.
SHRM provides information and resources to help business leaders meet their organizations' future workforce needs.
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