The election may be over, but that doesn’t mean we have heard the last of the debates that raged along the campaign trail. Among them, one of the most pressing will surely be this: What is to be done about all the people without college degrees who have been left behind in the economic recovery?
After all, even when the US monthly jobs report contains what appears to be good news, a little extra digging can reveal that the picture isn’t so rosy for those who never went to college. A 2016 Georgetown University study found that “of the 11.6 million jobs created so far during the [economic] recovery, nearly 75 percent have gone to people with a Bachelor’s degree or higher.” In addition, the Pew Research Center reports that millennial college graduates out-earn their high school educated peers by $17,500.
Meanwhile, research published in July by the Indeed Hiring Lab found that of all the professions identified as “opportunity jobs”—those with an average 2014 salary of at least $57,700, and salary growth greater than 25.3% from 2004 to 2014—75% are in fields that require college degrees.
Here’s the problem: nearly 70 percent of the U.S. workforce does not have a degree. So where are the opportunities for the majority today?
High demand, high salary and—no degree
To produce the chart below, we identified the “opportunity jobs” most in demand by US employers and then ranked them by salary, to provide us with a snapshot of the career paths that have offered people without college degrees the most and best-paid opportunities since 2004.
Top 10 Opportunity Jobs for Non-College Graduates
High employer demand opportunity jobs ranked by salary
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Source: BLS and Indeed
One of the most interesting — and perhaps encouraging — things about the list is its diversity. Whereas best-paid jobs typically feature lots of tech, medical or executive roles that require a lot of education, here no immediate theme or pattern emerges. Instead, we see demand for a broad range of skills and experience, ranging from management to transport, agriculture and health.Source: BLS and Indeed
In first place we see administrative services managers, an occupation defined by the BLS as people who “plan, direct, and coordinate supportive services of an organization.” In this job, strategic management skills are critical, but they are not industry-specific: instead, they can be applied across multiple sectors.
We also see two transport jobs in the top 10: commercial pilots (#3) and captain of a marine vessel (#5). (Truck drivers are in far greater demand, but these jobs do not appear on this list as they do not pay as well). There are also two entries for healthcare: radiation therapists (#2) and nuclear technicians (#7) who operate and monitor the levels of radiation produced by specialized equipment.
Skills with a very different type of machine can also pay well: elevator installers and repairers place fifth on our list. And if that seems surprising, then consider how many millions of dollars could be lost each minute if the elevators of a skyscraper containing the offices of a Manhattan bank broke down.
Thus we see that “opportunity jobs” for people without a college education are very diverse. That said, they do all share something in common: They ask a lot of the person doing this work. All these jobs require a great deal of skill and experience, while many also require a specialized certification that can be earned by serving an apprenticeship, completing coursework and passing an exam — or possibly a mix of all three.
What does the future hold?
While the list above may give us a sense of the best “opportunity jobs” available to people without a college degree today, there is still a problem with it—namely, that it’s not very scalable. After all, there are only so many openings for elevator specialists and ship’s captains.
So what about the future? An interesting trend is emerging among white collar employers who have started to open up jobs that used to require a college education to people without degrees.
In 2015 for instance, Ernst & Young announced that internal research had found no evidence that “previous success in higher education correlated with future success in subsequent professional qualifications undertaken.” As a result, the firm’s UK office redefined a degree as a “nice-to-have” rather than an essential requirement. Instead, the firm evaluates applicants via online testing which gives hiring managers insight into candidates’ personality, reasoning and critical thinking skills.
Similarly, Penguin Random House, no longer requires applicants to hold a degree, and relies instead on an internally developed test to identify talent. A major motivating factor in the switch was boosting diversity: according to the company’s human resources director, Neil Morrison, the focus on degrees resulted in too narrow a range of backgrounds among job candidates. By eliminating the requirement the firm hopes to better represent “today’s society.”
These may be encouraging signs, but of course it is still far too early to tell whether the policies adopted by Ernst and Young and Penguin represent the wave of the future. One thing is certain, however: abandoning the degree requirement is not a sign of slipping standards. If anything, it represents a raising of the game — an attempt to find a more effective way of identifying top talent than today’s degree-focused one-size-fits-all model.
For more insights, read the latest report from the Indeed Hiring Lab: The State of Opportunity in 2016: Overcoming the Wage Crisis in Today’s Labor Market.