Where Job Prospects Improve for Those With a College Degree

The report calculates the difference between the share of people with college education and the share of jobs that typically require that much education.

The report calculates the difference between the share of people with college education and the share of jobs that typically require that much education. Shutterstock


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There are more college-educated Americans than jobs requiring that level of education, according to the Urban Institute.

The share of Americans with some college education outweighs the number of jobs that require that level of skill, according to new research from the Urban Institute, a left-leaning think tank based in Washington, D.C.

The report, titled “The Education-Jobs ‘Mix-Match,’” calculates the difference between the share of people with college education (those with both some college education and those with four-year degrees or more) and the share of jobs that typically require that level of education in each of the country’s metropolitan statistical areas. (The report defines that difference, expressed as a percentage, as a “mix-match.”)

Researchers found that roughly 60 percent of Americans age 25 or older have at least some college education—but 63 percent of jobs typically require a high-school degree or less. None of the 387 metro areas have labor markets where the percentage of jobs requiring only some college exceeds the percentage of people with that level of education. And in 87 percent of metro areas—337 of the 387—there are more people with a four-year degree than there are jobs that require it.

Those figures contradict many policy conversations that center on creating opportunities for American workers, which focus mainly on “increasing the share of workers who have postsecondary education to reduce what is perceived as a persistent skills gap,” the report says.

Those discussions tend to highlight the fact that people with more education “tend to experience less unemployment and earn higher wages than those without it,” the report says. “However, for adults to maximize their economic returns on education, they must obtain a wage premium for their knowledge and skills. Existing research shows workers may not always be able to do this: the New York Federal Reserve reports that the share of recent graduates who are unemployed or underemployed has risen over the last few decades, and the quality of the jobs held by the underemployed has declined.”

And opportunities vary widely in different labor markets. For example, four-year degree holders have excellent job prospects in places with small shared of college graduates, including agricultural communities in the California San Joaquin Valley, post-industrial areas like Danville, Illinois and vacation destinations like Lake Havasu City-Kingman, Arizona.

By contrast, retirement communities and areas with booming tourism industries have the lowest concentration of jobs requiring a four-year degree.

Those disparities can negatively impact both employers, who struggle to find adequately trained workers, and job-seekers, who may end up working in positions that require less education, “potentially earning less and displacing less-educated people who would have held those jobs.”

To combat the problem, the report recommends that students be strategic with their education and career goals by choosing and completing certificate or associate’s degree programs that are in demand in their preferred metropolitan area.

“Alternatively, when possible, students would do well to set goals to complete a four-year degree rather than two-year degree or certification,” the report says. “Individuals with higher degrees tend to get paid more than those without them, although the wage premium for higher education has flattened over time and may vary by geography or occupation.”

Employers, meanwhile, should focus on implementing work-based training initiatives to help workers gain the skills they need to succeed. When asked about the skills gap, the report says, most employers can find candidates with adequate education credentials but have trouble hiring people with “workplace soft skills” like communication, problem-solving and teamwork.

“Work-based learning may be critical to addressing skills gaps and slowing potential credential inflation,” the report notes. “Implementing policies to incentivize and support work-based learning for more workers may be key to both meeting business needs and ensuring a good return on investment for workers and employers.“

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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