Workers holding college degrees have always had better luck finding jobs than those with less education, and today’s economy is no different.

According to Labor Department data published last week, 53 percent of adults with only a high school education or less were employed in July, compared to 72 percent for those with at least a bachelor’s degree. Similar discrepancies exist for unemployment rates.

Despite these disparities, employment prospects for Americans without any education beyond high school have largely improved in recent years. Unemployment rates for this segment of the workforce have fallen by nearly half over the past five years. Some regional economies stand out as being particularly favorable for less-educated workers.

Looking at data from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, we computed regional employment-to-population ratios for prime-age workers -- those between the ages of 25 and 64. In four metro areas, more than three-quarters of prime-age workers with high school diplomas or less were employed: Appleton, Wis.; Fargo, N.D.; Rochester, Minn.; and Sioux Falls, S.D. Meanwhile, only about half of such workers were employed in select other regions with weaker economies.

Generally speaking, regions where those without a college degree have the best chances of securing employment are in the upper Midwest and parts of the Northeast. These areas typically have tight labor markets where there aren't enough workers to fill vacancies, as well as low migration of workers relocating from other parts of the country. 

To gain further insight into these regional economies, we spoke with economists in areas where prime-age workers with low levels of education were employed at the highest rates in 2016, the most current Census data available.


Sioux Falls, S.D., Metro Area: 77.2% Employment-to-Population Ratio

Workers without any college degrees haven’t had much trouble finding work in Sioux Falls. Approximately 77 percent were employed in the metro area -- the highest rate nationally of any region with a workforce of at least 100,000.

South Dakota’s economy weathered the recession relatively well, leading displaced workers to relocate there. That’s since changed, though, as the national economy has regained momentum. “The spigot has been cut off from international migration and domestic migration,” says Ernest Goss, an economics professor at Creighton University.

The resulting smaller pool of potential employees has helped to keep down the region’s unemployment rate, which was the fifth lowest of any metro area in June. The labor shortage has likely given many low-skill workers a shot at job opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have.

Employers in Sioux Falls routinely cite a lack of qualified workers as a top concern, according to Goss. Many local companies, particularly manufacturers, are responding by investing in internal training or partnerships with community colleges. “It’s more common than it used to be," Goss says, "simply because of the skill levels of workers and the workforce not being as flexible and agile as it needs to be."

Many of these low-education workers may be finding jobs in machine manufacturing or other types of manufacturing. The region is also home to an expanding health-care sector.


Appleton, Wis., Metro Area: 76.9% Employment-to-Population Ratio

Workers with no more than a high school education are similarly finding plenty of job opportunities in the Appleton, Wis., metro area comprised of two counties north of Milwaukee. In fact, the group is employed at a rate that’s just 9 percentage points lower than that of all regional workers with higher educational attainment.

Industries employing the bulk of low-education workers include food services, construction, health care and manufacturing. All of them are performing well in Wisconsin, according to Scott Hodek, an economist with the state's Department of Workforce Development. In the Appleton area, there's a large number of paper and motor vehicle manufacturing jobs.

Hodek says the region, like many others across the upper Midwest and parts of the Northeast, isn’t experiencing much in-migration from other areas. That’s made for a tighter labor market. It's harder for the region to attract workers, but those who are there want to stay, he says.

As a result, Hodek says businesses are recognizing that they’ll need to train workers. Accordingly, the state reports high demand for its Wisconsin Fast Forward grant program supporting worker training projects. “During the recession, you had 50 people applying for a job, and they were all highly qualified,” Hodek says. “These days, you get three, and you’ve got to be willing to train.”


Fargo, N.D., Metro Area: 75.9% Employment-to-Population Ratio

Fargo’s labor force, like other areas, benefits from ample job openings without enough workers to fill them. The region’s unemployment rate was among the nation’s lowest in June, according to Labor Department estimates.

Fargo’s workforce is highly educated, with only about a quarter of adults age 25 and over never having attended college, compared to 40 percent nationally. It’s likely these workers are thriving not only as a result of the strong economy overall but also from weaker competition for jobs not requiring a college degree.

The area is home to North Dakota State University and a large medical provider employing more than 7,000 workers.

The area’s job growth appears to have leveled off more recently as total employment remains nearly unchanged from a year ago.


Rochester, Minn., Metro Area: 75.5% Employment-to-Population Ratio

Rochester serves as a major health-care hub, propelling growth across the rest of the region’s economy. Many of the recent job gains are tied to the Destination Medical Center, a $5.6 billion public-private economic development initiative supporting the expansion of the Mayo Clinic and other public infrastructure projects, according to state economist Laura Kalambokidis.

Many health-care jobs in Rochester and elsewhere often don’t require any college coursework. Employees may perform medical assistance, data entry or other administrative work.

The metro area’s leisure and hospitality sector has also steadily added jobs in recent years, and the agriculture industry further supports jobs that don't require college degrees.

As in other parts of the state, there just aren’t nearly as many workers to fill vacancies as before. “It’s kind of a perfect storm in terms of labor demand,” says Kalambokidis.


Madison, Wis., Metro Area: 74.6% Employment-to-Population Ratio

While all the aforementioned regions are relatively small, the Madison metro area has a larger workforce of about 400,000, providing an array of job opportunities for workers of low-educational attainment.

In addition to state government agencies and the University of Wisconsin, the area also benefits from a diverse private-sector economy. Epic, a health-care software company employing several thousand workers, is headquartered nearby, and several manufacturers maintain a presence in the surrounding counties.

The most recent Labor Department estimates suggest one sector that’s experienced particularly sharp growth lately is leisure and hospitality. Over the first half of the year, average monthly employment in Madison for the mostly low-wage sector is up about 6 percent compared to last year.


Other Regions

All of these regions provide plenty of job opportunities for low-education workers. That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, their overall economies are among the strongest nationally.

Parts of the South and Northwest are experiencing significant in-migration, which may artificially lower their employment-to-population ratios. Wages, too, vary across regions, and many of the job openings in some places are largely low-wage positions.

One might similarly assess labor markets by comparing employment-to-population ratios for workers not attending college with their more educated peers within the same areas. Places where the discrepancy is small, though, mostly reflect demographics and a heavy concentration of industries typically employing low-education workers. Many are retirement destinations or are supported by large tourism industries.

The following table shows the smallest differences in employment-to-population ratios for the two education groups among metro areas with at least 100,000 prime-age workers:


Metro Area H.S. Grad or Less All Other Workers Difference
Naples-Immokalee-Marco Island, FL 70.5% 73.8% 3.3%
Provo-Orem, UT 68.6% 74.5% 5.8%
Prescott, AZ 59.6% 65.5% 5.9%
Ogden-Clearfield, UT 70.2% 77.9% 7.7%
Santa Maria-Santa Barbara, CA 69.4% 77.3% 7.9%
Barnstable Town, MA 71.4% 79.4% 8.0%
Medford, OR 62.4% 70.7% 8.4%
Fort Collins, CO 71.3% 79.8% 8.4%
Cape Coral-Fort Myers, FL 62.5% 71.0% 8.5%
Santa Cruz-Watsonville, CA 67.8% 76.4% 8.6%
Appleton, WI 76.9% 85.7% 8.9%
Reno, NV 68.1% 77.0% 8.9%
Salt Lake City, UT 71.5% 80.6% 9.2%
Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura, CA 68.8% 77.9% 9.2%
Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers, AR-MO 69.4% 78.6% 9.3%
NOTE: Figures represent employment-to-population ratios for workers ages 25-64; SOURCE: Governing calculations 2016 Census Bureau American Community Survey data

About the Data

Five-year estimates were compiled from the Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey. Employment-to-population ratios for low-education workers were calculated by adding employment estimates for those between the ages of 25 and 64 reporting their highest level of educational attainment was either high school or less than high school. Other employment-to-population ratios reflect all other workers, including those with some college (without a four-year degree) or an associate’s degree. Figures exclude those in the armed services. Data was compiled for all metro areas where prime-age workers totaled at least 100,000.

Labor Department figures referenced separately refer to seasonally adjusted estimates for workers 25 years and older, current as of July.