Good Jobs for High School Graduates Still Exist

Quality jobs shift from blue-collar industries to skilled services

December 11, 2017
Good Jobs for High School Graduates Still Exist

​Many believe good jobs for workers without a bachelor's degree no longer exist in a labor market buffeted by automation and globalization, but there are still plenty of "middle-income" jobs out there, according to recent research.

A report conducted by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce in collaboration with JPMorgan Chase & Co. found that although the decline in U.S. manufacturing eliminated many quality jobs for workers with only a high school degree, there are currently 30 million jobs in the U.S. that pay well and do not require a bachelor's degree. These jobs have a median annual salary of $55,000 and a minimum annual salary of $35,000.

"In the past, these good jobs were found almost entirely in manufacturing and other blue-collar industries like transportation and construction," said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce and lead author of the report. "Today, new jobs [for workers without a four-year college degree] in skilled-services industries, such as health care, finance and information technology, have steadily been replacing good jobs lost in traditional blue-collar industries."

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Manufacturing and construction still have the majority (55 percent) of these jobs , but that is changing. Skilled-services jobs include occupations like computer support techs, HR generalists, firefighters, nurses, sales and customer service representatives, and accountants. Over 4 million such jobs have been added since 1991, while about 2.8 million jobs were lost in manufacturing during that time.

"We find that the number of workers with good jobs that pay without a [bachelor's degree]  has increased over the past quarter century—from 27 million in 1991 to 30 million today, even with large losses in manufacturing employment," Carnevale said. The catch is that to compete for many of these newer skilled-services roles, workers need some education or training beyond their high school diploma, he added. Those with only high school diplomas still have the largest share of these middle-income jobs, but that share continues to decline. Those with bachelor's degrees are taking an increasing share of these jobs, the research found.

"For the past several decades the nation has operated under a simple principle—the surest path to labor-market success is through a bachelor's degree at a four-year college or university," said Mark Schneider, vice president at the American Institutes for Research and a visiting scholar in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, there are roughly 2 million bachelor's degrees granted annually, followed by about 1 million associate's degrees granted and just under 1 million nondegree certificates. But associate's degree holders have gained the most middle-income jobs in both blue-collar and skilled-services industries since 1991, according to the Georgetown Center report.

While on average bachelor's degree holders earn more than those with associate's degrees, certificates and apprenticeships, earnings vary widely based on factors such as the choice of major, Schneider said.

"Skills-oriented programs in health, engineering and other technical fields are typically more remunerative than many programs in traditional academic fields," he said. "If we move beyond our current fixation on the bachelor's degree and … include all the postsecondary pathways at our disposal, far more educational options emerge that can lead students to economic success."

Tim Lawrence, executive director of SkillsUSA, an organization that helps prepare students for careers in trade, technical and skilled-service occupations, stresses that there is a tremendous opportunity for job seekers in commercial construction and advanced manufacturing due to talent shortages in those fields.

"There has never been a better time to have technical skills than right now," Lawrence said. "It's a sellers' market for any person entering the workforce with technical skills grounded in academics, and personal skills like communication and teamwork. The latest annual Manpower Talent Shortage survey shows that once again skilled trade occupations are the toughest jobs to fill in the United States and worldwide. These are jobs that require apprenticeships, a two-year high school program or community [or] technical college pathways."

Additional Career Pathways

More than one-quarter of Americans hold a nondegree credential, such as a certificate or an occupational license or certification, and about one-fifth have completed a work experience program such as an internship, residency or apprenticeship, according to a survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, based on responses from 47,744 adults.

Apprenticeships. Apprenticeships blend on-the-job work with paid classroom instruction, and they usually last two to six years. The number of new entrants in registered apprenticeship programs increased by 50 percent from 2008 to 2015 to include just over 500,000 active registered apprentices. Over 150,000 employers have adopted registered apprenticeships. President Donald Trump has made apprenticeship expansion a goal of his presidency, announcing he wants to create 5 million new apprenticeships over the next five years, a tenfold increase, but it's uncertain how that will happen with roughly the same amount of federal spending being applied.

"One interim step to make apprenticeships more widespread is to build a better case for their economic value," Schneider said. "States and the federal government should increase access to these data, if for no other reason than to help increase demand for this potentially valuable avenue into well-paying employment opportunities."

Another issue to grapple with is what some employers see as too cumbersome a process to create and maintain a registered apprenticeship program. Trump signed an executive order in June removing federal restrictions that he says have prevented industries from expanding apprenticeship programs. "When the process and the regulations are relaxed, we'll see more opportunity in apprenticeships," Lawrence said.

Certificates. Certificates are nondegree credentials mostly offered by educational institutions like community colleges. They usually signify that a student has reached a standard of knowledge about a certain vocational or professional subject, can be completed more quickly than associate's degrees and often do not have general education requirements. According to federal education statistics, there were roughly 960,000 certificates awarded to students in the 2014-15 academic year, a large increase from 10 years earlier.

Certificate holders were most likely to work as administrative assistants (17 percent) or in health care (12 percent), followed by jobs in business management and operations, sales, manufacturing and farming, and grounds services. They are most likely to earn between $20,000 and $50,000 per year (42 percent), with 29 percent earning less than $20,000 and 29 percent earning more than $50,000.

Most respondents said their last postsecondary certificate was either very useful (49 percent) or somewhat useful (27 percent) in getting them a job. An even larger percentage (83 percent) said the certificate program had improved their work skills, while 58 percent said it was useful in increasing their pay.

Certifications. These credentials are distinct from certificates. According to the Association for Career and Technical Education, certificates largely lack independent verification of the skills

learned, whereas certifications are expressly designed by industry groups to convey mastery of specific knowledge, skills or processes. "Certifications are measured against a set of accepted standards, usually coupled with a formal assessment and validation designed in cooperation with a business, trade association or other industry group," Schneider said. According to the U.S. Census, in 2016 about 25 percent of the workforce had some combination of certifications or licenses.

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