Where the Good Jobs Are

You dropped out of college, or decided straight out of high school that college was not your thing. Here’s some advice if you are looking for a job: Stay out of Washington. Don’t go to New York. Forget about San Francisco. If you want to make anything near a decent wage, head for Toledo, Des Moines or Birmingham.

Most of the 140 million Americans over 25 who lack a bachelor’s degree face pretty dim job prospects. The median wage for workers with some college education but no four-year degree is $835 per week, about 10 percent less than it was at the turn of the century, after inflation. Workers with a bachelor’s degree typically make one-third more.

Underneath the grim average, however, the truth is that there are better-paid jobs available to workers without the requisite college credential. The trick is finding them. They are not always in the most obvious places.

Keith Wardrip of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia and Kyle Fee and Lisa Nelson of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland have put together a map. Its most resounding and confounding recommendation: Stay out of the superstar cities. Their booming tech, health and financial industries may offer great jobs for the college educated. But if you don’t have the degree, they have little for you.

Mr. Wardrip, Mr. Fee and Ms. Nelson define a “good job” in simple terms: It has to pay more than the national median wage, $37,690 in 2017, adjusted for the cost of living in the area. In Springfield, Mo., the cutoff is $33,100. In San Jose, Calif., it is $47,900. To figure out how many of these jobs are open to people without degrees, the researchers scoured nearly 30 million local job ads across 121 metropolitan areas to determine their minimum educational requirements. They called them “opportunity jobs.”

Their findings offer a sliver of hope for the future of the American worker. About 22 million jobs — over one in five across the metropolitan areas in the study — pay more than the median wage. They include some surprises. For all the talk that you need a bachelor’s degree these days to become a registered nurse, 66 percent of available registered-nursing jobs did not require one. Many make do with an associate degree. Neither did 46 percent of openings for executive secretaries and executive administrative assistants. Nor did 53 percent of the searches for computer-user support specialists. All the positions cleared the wage floor.

Some of these job categories are growing fast. The economy is expected to add nearly half a million jobs for registered nurses between 2016 and 2026. And Mr. Wardrip noted that as the job market had tightened over the last five years, employers had relaxed their educational requirements.

The most striking finding is how these jobs are distributed geographically. In Asheville, N.C., more than four in five job openings for computer-user support specialists do not require a bachelor’s degree. In San Francisco, only about a third are open to people without a degree. Fewer than half the nursing jobs in Raleigh, N.C., are open to people who haven’t graduated from a four-year college, compared with 85 percent in Huntsville, Ala.

Of course, bigger cities will have more opportunity jobs. They have more jobs over all. But they also have more workers without four-year college degrees competing for work. In St. Louis, there are 2.3 workers without a degree for each opportunity job. In the New York-Newark metropolitan area, there are 4.5.

A couple of patterns stand out. For one, prices can explain a lot about the regional distribution of good jobs. You need to earn more in expensive places to stay above the median wage. The metropolitan areas around Austin, Tex., and Cleveland have roughly the same total employment. But living in Cleveland is cheaper. So while only 18.5 percent of Austin’s jobs offer good wages to workers without college degrees, opportunity jobs account for 30 percent of Cleveland’s employment.

In the superstar cities, sky-high rents make this very difficult. The cost of living in the New York area is 37 percent higher than in Birmingham, Ala. So while the $34,700 annual wage of a typical bill-and-account collector in Birmingham clears the threshold to be considered a good job by more than $1,000, the $44,380 wage for the equivalent job in the New York area falls about $1,500 short. Hence there are 1,371 opportunity jobs in Birmingham collecting bills and accounts. In the New York area, there are none.

The industry mix of various urban areas also plays an important role. For instance, what remains of America’s manufacturing sector is also enhancing job opportunities for those who aren’t college educated. Former industrial hubs like Cleveland and St. Louis still offer some blue-collar jobs that pay a decent wage.

How to expand opportunities to workers without a four-year degree? Part of the answer involves training, for sure. Cities might also try to promote the expansion of the kinds of industries that offer most opportunity jobs. But the enormous variation in educational requirements for similar jobs across the United States also suggests that many employers seem to be asking for more education than the job requires.

There may be good reasons for hospitals in Raleigh to require registered nurses to have a bachelor’s degree. The positions might involve more complex care requiring a higher level of skill. But the large disparity in educational requirements suggests that many employers are demanding more education than needed just because they can be more selective when they have a larger pool of workers to choose from.

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