Alison Yin for EdSource
Carpentry class at Laney College in Oakland, Calif., Sept. 2, 2014.

Workers who want to earn at least $35,000 a year increasingly need to have some training beyond high school but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree.

That’s the conclusion of a Georgetown University study on the nation’s workforce that goes beyond the narrative that all students need to aim for a four-year college degree.

While the nation has lost more than a million good-paying blue-collar jobs, researchers have found that there is a restructuring underway, as new good positions that don’t require a bachelor’s degree have been created in California and elsewhere.

 “The dominant storyline is that you need to have a four-year college degree to have a chance of a good job,” said Neil Ridley, a co-author of the report. “And while that is true to some extent, what we found is that there are more good jobs than people realize for workers who don’t actually have a four-year degree.”

The report sliced each state’s workforce into several groups depending on employees’ level of education and whether they are in a “good-paying” job — which the authors define as $35,000 or more for workers younger than 45 and $45,000 who are older. Nationwide, about 30 million of the labor force’s 123 million workers don’t have a bachelor’s degree but are in good-paying jobs, said the report.

In California, the best prospects for workers without a bachelor’s degree are in manufacturing, health services, financial activities, real estate, construction and the retail trade, the study found.

Two things stand out: It’s clear workers with bachelor’s degrees are more likely to find good-paying jobs. But it’s also apparent that the erosion of reliable blue-collar positions like manufacturing hasn’t hurt the opportunities for workers who haven’t earned a four-year college degree — as long they’re trained in the skills needed for these new service-sector jobs.

“The labor market has become a lot more complex,” Ridley said. “Workers need much better information and data on the wages they can expect” and to figure out “what the right credentials are.” He added that tighter relationships between community colleges and employers are also key.

Responding to the challenge, the state’s community college system has ramped up its spending on workforce training from $100 million five years ago to $900 million in 2017. And a recent report the system’s leaders commissioned highlighted the sectors of the economy community colleges in Southern California could support by educating more students for those middle-skills jobs.

Between 1991 and 2015, California lost more than 230,000 good-paying blue-collar jobs but they were more than offset by the development of 265,000 skilled-services jobs. Both figures apply to workers without bachelor’s degrees.

While employees with bachelor’s degrees on average earn more, the state boasts millions of workers who lack a bachelor’s but typically earn around $59,000 a year — including nearly a million employees whose formal educations stopped at high school.

Of the nearly 9 million workers in California who haven’t earned a bachelor’s, about 3.3 million have good paying jobs. The state’s labor force also includes 5.3 million workers with a bachelor’s or higher — and about 3.9 million of them earn good wages. The typical pay for workers with bachelor’s with good-paying jobs is $84,000, higher than the $59,000 for workers without a bachelor’s who have good jobs.

The state lost more than 420,000 good-paying manufacturing jobs for workers without bachelor’s, but gained nearly 200,000 other good-paying blue-collar jobs in fields such as construction and transportation, Ridley said.

Not every state shares California’s experience of shedding good-paying blue-collar jobs. While manufacturing dipped in 38 states, 23 states gained other good blue-collar jobs that don’t require bachelor’s degrees.

Between 1991 and 2015, the country had shed nearly 1.3 million good-paying blue-collar jobs and added more than 4 million skilled-services jobs for workers without bachelor’s degrees. In California, 47 percent of the good-paying jobs for workers without a bachelor’s are in blue-collar work. The share is higher nationally — 55 percent are in blue-collar work while 45 percent are in skilled-services industries.

In previous reports, the Georgetown center forecasted that by 2020, two-thirds of all jobs in the U.S. economy will require postsecondary education and training beyond high school. It also found that the economic recovery since the recession has overwhelmingly favored workers with some college experience — 11.5 million of the 11.6 million jobs created went to workers who have attended college.

Whether California can prepare its workforces is in question, however. The Public Policy Institute of California predicts a skills shortage among both workers with a bachelor’s and those with some college, totaling 2.5 million people in the coming years.

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