Guest Column

USDOL data shows four-year degrees are where the money is

July 14, 2017
| By Lou Glazer |
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We hear a lot about the abundance of good-paying jobs that don’t require a four-year degree. The story goes that there are lots of jobs — think $100,000 a year for welders — particularly in the skilled trades, where employers can’t find qualified candidates, while far too many get four-year degrees and then salaries that don’t allow them to pay off mountainous student loans.

So, let’s take a closer look at those allegedly good-paying jobs that don’t require a four-year degree. The data come from the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL). It does not include those who are self-employed. Wages are calculated for full-time equivalents. So no matter how many hours worked, the wages are calculated based on 2,040 hours a year.

Nationally, wages at the 75th percentile are $60,150. Using that as the standard for high-paying occupations, the total employment in occupations that do not require a four-year degree and have a median wage of $60,150 is 3.5 million. This is less than 3 percent of the 140 million payroll jobs in America.

Where employment is concentrated in occupations with a median wage of $60,150 or more is in occupations where a bachelor’s degree or more is required. Eighty-eight percent (26 million) of the jobs that meet our high-pay standard require a four-year degree.

From 2006-16, the number of jobs in occupations with a median wage of at least $60,150 that do require a four-year degree increased by 3.6 million. In contrast, over the past decade, the number of jobs in occupations with a median wage of at least $60,150 that do not require a four-year degree decreased by 1.8 million.

Nearly one-half of all the jobs in occupations that do not require a four-year degree and have a median wage of $60,150 are managers and supervisors. National employment in production (manufacturing) occupations that meet our high-pay standard is a little more than 100,000, and in construction occupations, it’s only 40,000. There simply is no evidence in the data to suggest there are many $100,000 jobs for welders and other blue-collar trades occupations.

Using a lower wage standard, let’s categorize occupations as good paying where the median wage is at least at the national median of $37,040. For each occupation, the USDOL designates the minimum education required to obtain a job in that occupation. About 200 of the 800 occupations identified by the USDOL have a median wage of at least $37,040 and require education less than a four-year degree.

Of the 140 million payroll jobs in America, about 32 million (23 percent) are in occupations that meet our definition of good paying and not requiring a four-year degree. That’s about 2.8 million fewer jobs than met that definition a decade ago.

About 92 percent of those jobs are in 11 of the 19 occupation groups identified by USDOL. Making one change to the USDOL occupation groups, moving first line supervisors into the group with managers, rather than with those they supervise, here is the breakdown of employment and change in employment from 2006-16 in occupations that do not require four-year degrees and have median wages of at least the national median in the 11 occupation groups:

  • Managers and supervisors: 6,200,000, about the same as in 2006
  • Office and administrative support: 5,000,000, down 1,500,000 since 2006
  • Construction and extraction: 3,800,000, down 700,000 since 2006
  • Installation, maintenance and repair: 3,300,000, down 1,200,000 since 2006
  • Transportation and material moving: 2,300,000, up 100,000 since 2006
  • Health care practitioner and technical: 2,100,000, up 400,000 since 2006
  • Sales: 2,100,000, down 100,000 since 2006
  • Production: 1,900,000, down 600,000 since 2006
  • Protective services: 1,500,000, up 100,000 since 2006
  • Computer and mathematics: 800,000, up 300,000 since 2006
  • Architecture and engineering: 700,000, down 100,000 since 2006

Almost certainly, this list will surprise many. The public conversation about good-paying jobs that don’t require a four-year degree tends to be about the blue collar trades — production, construction, etc. — plus health care and IT. But it’s almost never managers and supervisors, office and administrative support, or sales.

Gov. Rick Snyder has been calling for more career counseling, rather than college counseling, in our high schools. But if that counseling is driven by the facts — not anecdotes — regarding the labor market, the two would be the same. We should want all Michigan students to have the opportunity to leave high school with the skills needed to compete for the jobs in the 88 percent of high-paid jobs in occupations that require four-year degrees or more, rather than what is happening too often now, where business leaders and elected officials are preparing their kids for the 88 percent of high-paid jobs and encouraging others’ kids to compete for the 12 percent of jobs — or even worse, the 6 percent of non-management and supervisor jobs — that are high paid and in occupations that don’t require a four-year degree.

Lou Glazer of president of Michigan Future Inc.

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