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No College Degree? There Are Jobs for You.

Just not many that pay much.

A plumber
While plumbers currently make about $60,000 a year, by 2031 there will be only about 10,000 new plumbing jobs created in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Daria Voronchuk/Shutterstock)
If you live in Wisconsin and haven’t graduated from college, there’s some good news. Nearly three-quarters of the jobs created in the state in the next six years will not require a college degree. But there’s bad news as well: For the jobs that pay at least $50,000 a year, more than half will require a college diploma. Even worse: Among occupations paying salaries of $75,000 or more, 91 percent will call for a college education.

These statistics are drawn from a paper released just this month by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum. The paper cites, for example, the contrasting prospects for sales representatives and operations managers. In 2030, the average Wisconsin sales rep is likely to be making about $60,000 a year. Meanwhile, the salaries for operations managers will be up to $117,000. If you’re not quite sure what an operations manager does, I’m not either. But in the words of the Policy Forum study, “New higher paying jobs are even more likely to require a degree than those that already exist.”

The numbers are puzzling. They are appearing just as a large number of state governments and several huge corporations are relaxing their degree demands for a wide variety of jobs. But there is quite a bit of evidence to back up the findings in Wisconsin.

David Deming, an economist at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, has reported that the current average salary of truck drivers in their 20s, a little more than $36,000, will inch up to $50,000 by the time they are 50 years old. But salaries in business occupations will double, to about $100,000 from the current $50,000. As Deming puts it, “The fastest-growing occupations that do not require a college degree are mostly low-wage service jobs that offer little opportunity for advancement.” Those include jobs held by home health aides, food service preparers, waiters and warehouse workers. All of those average less than $31,000 a year, according to the most recent data.

Blue-collar jobs will not only fall behind in compensation — they will be harder to find. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that while plumbers currently make an annual salary of about $60,000, only about 10,000 plumbing jobs will be created in the United States by the year 2031.

All of this is being reported, as I mentioned, just at a moment when college-degree requirements for job applicants are being dramatically lowered, both in the private sector and in government employment. Maryland claims to have been the first state to do this, in 2022. But the most dramatic move was made by Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, who announced on his first day in office, in 2023, that he was opening 92 percent of state jobs to “anyone with the relevant work experience and skill-based training, regardless of educational attainment.” He launched a page on the state website called “Experience Matters,” which directs anybody interested to “all job titles that do not require a degree to qualify.” The governors of Utah and Virginia moved in the same direction shortly after that. As of today, the Brookings Institution reports, at least 13 states have cut back on degree requirements for state employment.

Similar moves are underway in the upper reaches of corporate America, including at General Motors, the Bank of America, Google and Apple. IBM seems to have gone the furthest: It has declared that half of its new jobs will not demand a college degree.

SOMETHING ODD IS GOING ON HERE. We seem to be telling our emerging generation of job-seekers that the lower steps to employment are open to them as never before, but at the same time the upper rungs on the ladder remain mostly blocked. Maybe they are blocked up tighter than in the past.

Just to add a little more relevant data: Some 62 percent of Americans over the age of 25 do not have a college degree. Among younger workers, as of 2021, the salary gap between those who went to college and those who stopped at 12th grade was $22,000 a year. That gap narrowed slightly during the pandemic years, but that is unlikely to last.

Do Americans realize just how pervasive this gap has been? Well, some do, but a lot don’t — especially if they are making it financially. In a poll conducted by the New America Foundation, 38 percent of respondents with household incomes of more than $100,000 a year thought that a college degree was necessary for long-term security. Interestingly, a much larger share felt a diploma was essential for members of their own family.

At the same time, younger people seem split on the question of whether they need a college degree to get ahead. In one recent poll, 45 percent of those in Generation Z (ages 11 to 26 as of last year) said they thought a high school diploma would be sufficient to achieve financial security later on. But more than 50 percent didn’t. If my reading of the data is correct, those respondents were closer to the truth.

THESE NUMBERS POINT US TO A MUCH LARGER QUESTION. It’s pretty well known at this point that real wages — compensation with inflation factored in — have declined significantly over the last generation pretty much across the employment spectrum. But they have declined most for blue-collar workers without college degrees.

There are a couple of things we might do about this, but neither one is exactly easy to bring off. We could send more working-class young people to college so they can break into the higher echelons. Or we could make an effort to pay blue-collar workers a better wage, no matter where their education ended.

Lots of progressive Democrats have bought into the first approach: Make college affordable and accessible for just about everyone, they argue, and the wage-gap problem would be on the way to solution. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont believes this; so does former President Barack Obama. Sanders wants to make college free. “In the richest country in the history of the world,” he wrote a few years ago, “everyone who has the desire and the ability should be able to get a college education regardless of their background and ability to pay.” Obama, shortly after becoming president in 2009, vowed that “by 2020, this nation will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” That didn’t happen, but there is no evidence that Obama has changed his mind about the importance of near-universal college education.

The case for the other side has been voiced eloquently by the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel in his book The Tyranny of Merit and a series of lectures. Sandel’s argument is essentially very simple: Working-class people don’t need college diplomas, or whatever paper credentials a degree might provide them. They need to be paid decently for the work they are doing and to be treated with respect for the societal value of that work. Sandel believes that much of blue-collar America feels not only underpaid but unappreciated. College-educated elites, Sandel writes, “have difficulty understanding the hubris a meritocracy can generate, and the harsh judgment it imposes on those who have not gone to college.”

One needn’t search too far for examples of the hubris that Sandel is talking about. There is, most famously, Hillary Clinton’s remark in the 2016 presidential campaign degrading many of her opponents as a “basket of deplorables.” That remark may or may not have cost Clinton the election, but it clearly contributed to the fact that Donald Trump won the votes of two-thirds of white voters who did not have college degrees.

No doubt sending more of these people to college might do something for their self-esteem, and even for their employability. But it would not do as much as compensating them better and treating them respectfully for the contributions they are already making. Maybe we are already moving in this direction: Relaxing degree requirements for state jobs is a step forward. But the next step is giving these workers a shot at the higher levels of the employment hierarchy. The data from the Wisconsin Policy Forum makes it clear that this is not really happening.

“Jobs do not require four-year college degrees,” one research organization concluded recently. “Employers do.” Changing that is a matter of social values at least as much as it is a matter of economics.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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