A new report offers a startling insight into economic change that has driven a summer of political discontent: Among U.S. workers, those with bachelor’s degrees now outnumber those who didn’t get past high school.
Just eight years ago, people with no college experience held 39 percent of jobs. By January 2016, that share had shrunk to 34 percent. And college graduates rose to 36 percent of the workforce, from 32 percent in December 2007.
The reason: Virtually all the 11.6 million jobs created from 2010 through 2015, as the nation slowly crawled out of recession, went to workers with at least some college experience. Workers with no college experience recovered just 80,000 of the 5.6 million jobs they lost in 2008 and 2009.
The analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data comes in a report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. It underscores a tectonic shift in the U.S. economy that laid the groundwork for political discontent that has roiled the nation this year.
“Workers with a high school diploma or less essentially have experienced no job recovery,” write study authors Anthony P. Carnevale, Tamara Jayasundera and Artem Gulish.
If a college degree is essential to success today, a master’s degree may be necessary tomorrow. The study finds that workers with only a bachelor’s degree lost 66,000 jobs in the recession and gained 4.7 million in the recovery. But those with a graduate degree saw no net loss at all during the recession. Instead, they gained 253,000 jobs during the recession and another 3.8 million in the recovery.
Whether from the advance of technology in all industries or the phenomenon of “education inflation,” the economic shift has been building for decades, the study notes.
Growing demand for workers in “high-skill” occupations — including management, health care and technical jobs — across industries is critical to explaining the shift, study authors say. “Low-skill” occupations, such as construction jobs, saw net declines even after six years of recovery.
The study authors note that a fundamental shift in the composition of the U.S. workforce has rewarded those with advanced education in growing occupations. But in an echo of stories that have shaped much of the political debate in a presidential election year, they also acknowledge that some are being left behind.
“Men without a college degree were traditionally able to make their way into the middle class through manufacturing and construction jobs, and women without a college degree could get middle class jobs in office and administrative support occupations,” the study authors conclude. “These pathways are increasingly closing down, leaving few opportunities to access the middle class without postsecondary education.”