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In the Nation's Interest

Good Jobs for Those Without BAs?

Last month The New York Federal Reserve updated its indicator tracking the number of job postings for which a bachelor’s degree is deemed necessary against so called "non-college" jobs. The update shows a continuation of a trend; there are more job openings that don’t require a BA than do:

More job openings for those without a bachelor’s degree is good because the majority of the working population does not have a BA. A 2016 U.S. Census Bureau study finds only 33% of all adults age 25 or older have at least a BA. But many non-BA jobs can be  low-wage and low-skilled and may not offer economic security.

So are any of these new non-BA jobs high-paying? The Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) says yes. 

There are good jobs out there for American’s without a BA – but they don’t look like they used to.

CEW recently published a new report, “Good Jobs that Pay without a BA” as part of an ongoing series on the characteristics of our evolving labor economy. It finds that despite the panic surrounding the accelerated automation of our manufacturing sector – and correspondingly, a decline in that industry’s supply of well-paying jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree, there are still good jobs out there for American’s without a four-year credential.

According to the study, there are 30 million “good jobs” – defined as a job with a minimum salary of $35,000 for those under 45 and $45,000 for those 45 years and older – out there for people without BAs.

As our economy becomes ever more information-based, old good jobs are being replaced by new good jobs cropping up in growing economic sectors – principally, information technology and other skilled-services industries such as healthcare and finance – that require a different set of skills. So while these new good jobs don’t require a BA, they do require some sort of postsecondary education or credentialing. The majority of these good non-BA jobs are going to those with associate’s degrees.; Ssince 1991, associate degree holders have gained approximately 3 million good jobs while workers with only a high school diploma saw their share of good jobs fall by 1 million.

Make no mistake; a bachelor’s degree is still yourthe best bet for securing a well-paying job. While those without a BA have, as a group, made modest gains, their overall share of good jobs has shrunk, with 60% of good jobs going to those with at least a BA. But bachelor’s degree completion rates clearly indicate that this path doesn’t work for everyone. Only those who complete their degree receive the full economic benefit of pursuing a BA.  For those who are truly not yet ready for a traditional four-year college experience, an associate’s degree or non-degree credential could be a better option for securing their economic future.

If CEW’s predictions that the majority of new good jobs for non-BA holders will continue to go to those with some postsecondary education, then logically we should focus energy on encouraging enrollment in programs that develop technical skills to meet future demands in growing skilled-service fields.

Setting aside the potential for personal enrichment, a general studies associate degree is unlikely to prepare students enter one of these growing fields that require mastery of specific technical skills. Unfortunately, many students simply do not know what subjects they should be pursuing, a phenomenon that plays out at all levels of postsecondary education and likely contributes to the omnipresent “skills gap.” While this occurs at all levels of education, it is likely that a “soft-skilled” bachelor’s degree is still vastly more likely to help a graduate get a good job than if they earned  an associate’s degree in a similar field.

Community colleges, where students can earn these potentially valuable associate degrees cost-effectively, are known for being both underfunded and understaffed, making it difficult to dedicate resources to the crucial task of guiding students towards viable careers, or more importantly, simply knowing where those careers are in local economy. This is where business leaders can be invaluable – because who knows better what skills the workers of tomorrow will need than the very people creating the jobs?

Many business leaders lament that a “skills gap” keeps them from filing job vacancies because they can’t find qualified candidates. Because the time horizon for earning an associate’s degree or credential is shorter than a bachelor’s degree, community colleges can fulfill immediate needs for workers with specific skills faster than their four-year counterparts. While this wouldn’t work for all new skilled-service positions, it certainly could for a subset of jobs. In a 2015 report, CED laid out principles to foster stronger connections between businesses and community colleges. Other organizations have begun to do the same, and the concept is gaining traction.

Helping colleges understand what skills businesses anticipate needing doesn’t necessitate formal, involved partnerships (although that variety of engagement is always encouraging). But if we can find a way to effectively and more systematically communicate labor needs to the supplier – colleges – we could go a long way to ensuring workers seeking better economic opportunities at least know where the good jobs are and how to get them.