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No bachelor’s degree? “There are many pathways to middle class, good jobs,” expert says.

Neil Ridley, the state initiative director of The Good Jobs Project.
Neil Ridley, the state initiative director of The Good Jobs Project. Provided

There’s a running narrative that good well-paying jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree have all but disappeared. Not so, according to an exhaustive state-by-state analysis conducted for The Good Jobs Project, a joint effort by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce and JP Morgan Chase.

Tom Martin talks with Neil Ridley, the state initiative director and co-author of The Good Jobs Project report, about his findings for Kentucky.

Question: What was the premise of your study?

Answer: Most people are very familiar with the pathway that leads from high school into the workforce in some cases or even more commonly the pathway that goes from high school to a four-year university or college and a four-year degree.

There’s much less attention paid to the educational and economic opportunities that are available to workers who go beyond high school — perhaps to a good technical college or community college in a complete or an apprenticeship program, and find a good paying job in their area. So, the idea was to raise the visibility of this often overlooked space between high school and the four-year degree.

Q: For the purposes of your study, how have you defined what is a good job?

A: We used a technical advisory group to refine the definition before we ran the data. We have a two-tiered definition. For younger workers below age 45, we used a job that pays $35,000 per year as the lower level. For workers age 45 and older we used a higher wage threshold because those workers are more established in the workforce and likely to be earning more later in their careers. What we found is that the average was $55,000 for these good jobs and in many cases the earnings go well above that.

Q: Do your statistics include those without a high school diploma?

A: They do. We defined it very broadly to include workers without a high school diploma, those who have completed some level of postsecondary education training, and workers with an associate’s degree as well.

Q: Which sectors of the economy offer the most promising prospects for job seekers who don’t have college degrees?

A: The headline finding was that we found that in today’s economy there are about 30 million good jobs that pay without a BA, that is, good jobs that are going to those with high school or some college and associate’s degree.

We divided industries into two groups: blue-collar industries that include manufacturing, construction, transportation, and wholesale, retail, and trade, and then skilled services which feature health services, financial services and other services.

A key finding at the national level was that there’s been a real shift in the movement of good jobs from blue-collar industries to skilled services industries. We found that manufacturing good jobs, in particular, have gone down drastically since 1991 and especially since 2000. At the same time, we’ve seen actually an offsetting growth of good jobs in the skilled services industries, primarily health services, but also many of the other service industries, as well.

Q: And, did you look at sub-groups, gender for example?

A: We did. The main finding there was that, whether surprising or not, good jobs for those without a BA have gone mostly to men. It’s really been remarkably steady since 1991.

Q: Anything else that you would like to note on the national scale before we bring this down to the state level?

A: Yes. Another trend in addition to the industry shift that I mentioned is a shift in good jobs going to workers that have more postsecondary education. In the past, it was quite common for students to leave high school or in some cases not even finish high school and find a good job in a manufacturing plant, in a mine or on a construction site. But, increasingly we found that a lot of the good job growth has been for workers with associate degrees.

Q: What does your research find about Kentucky?

A: We find that Kentucky was one of the states that actually experienced good job growth between 1991 and 2015. There were quite a few states, north and east of Kentucky and the Midwest and the Northeastern parts of the country that experienced big losses of manufacturing jobs.

But, Kentucky was one of the fortunate states clustered mostly in the south and the west that experienced growth. It was 12 percent growth in good jobs.

Another interesting point is that while the nation overall lost good jobs in blue-collar industries and gained good jobs in skilled services industries such as health, Kentucky actually was able to add good jobs in both areas. And that’s primarily because there was growth in construction and transportation even while Kentucky lost a lot of good manufacturing jobs along with the rest of the country.

Q: You’ve talked about median earnings on the national level, how does it look on the Kentucky level?

A: For Kentucky, median earnings for good jobs without a BA are about $54,000 per year, very close to the national median, actually.

Q: To that young adult who knows they will not pursue a degree and who is trying to figure out that career path, where are the good jobs?

A: The good jobs are increasingly in the service economy and especially in the high-skilled service economy. Health services is one of the areas that has been growing for some time and it’s likely to continue to demand workers with skills and with knowledge and often with degrees and licenses and other certifications. So, that’s an increasingly important area.

But, as some of the Kentucky trends show from our report, there also continue to be good jobs for workers in blue-collar areas. Construction is particularly strong in Kentucky, as well as transportation.

Q: For generations, the mantra has been that we must go to college to succeed, but it seems as though the message here is that that’s not necessarily so anymore. Would you agree?

A: There are many pathways to middle class and to good jobs. What we often lack is really good information about different ways of finding a career. And I think that is partly what our report is getting at: trying to increase our understanding of all the various pathways and options that are available to young people or experienced workers for that matter who were looking for a change.

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