Jared Bernstein takes a look at the latest BLS tables and makes an interesting observation: of the first three occupations expected to add the most jobs in the near future, two of them (retail sales and home health aides) are in industries that generally do not require advanced education:
Bernstein is not suggesting that skills and education do not matter. As he notes, it’s hard to say now what the skill demands for a food prep worker or cashier will be ten years down the road. More importantly, he has previously made the case that it’s better for the worker and society overall when people within these occupational categories have more skills and training.
But even if there are more job opportunities for those with lower education levels than some would have you believe, the quality of those jobs isn’t great. Where I live, in Washington, D.C., many of retail jobs, for example, pay the minimum wage or just slightly better, and don’t offer much in the way of advancement, and/or have lousy benefits. The median wage for workers in low-income families in D.C. is just a little over $9.00 an hour (this comes from a 2010 report, but I doubt it’s gone up much), which is too low to lift a family out of poverty even working full-time.
So I understand why college access is an attractive anti-poverty policy lever: (1) the jobs for those without college often do not pay enough to lift people out of poverty, and (2) those living in poverty have often been denied access to a decent education, perhaps over multiple generations.
But if we expect there to be a continued demand for employees in industries that do not generally require a college degree, what else could be done to lift wages and improve working conditions in these high-growth, low-skill industries—rather than just asking workers to get a degree in order to escape them?