What are the educational pathways to good jobs?

Good jobs are dwindling in number – at least for people without advanced training. That was true long before the coronavirus struck, and it’s even truer now.

Well-paying, unionized jobs in fields like manufacturing have been automated or shipped overseas. With few exceptions, the jobs that have been growing for people who lack training beyond high school tend to cluster in low-paying fields like retail and hospitality, which rarely offer stability or benefits. High-paying jobs in areas like technology and professional services have been growing, too. But they typically require advanced training and skills, meaning those positions are out of reach for many of the middle-class workers whose jobs are disappearing.

As America’s labor force has become more economically polarized, the educational pathways for social mobility have become less reliable and clear cut. While workers with college degrees still earn significantly more than people with only a high school diploma, the return on investment of a four-year degree has softened. And even as more employers demand a college degree — a phenomenon known as “degree inflation” — skyrocketing tuition has priced many people out of the higher education they need to qualify for good jobs.

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The pandemic’s impact

That was all happening before the coronavirus brought the economy to a halt, sending jobless claims to record levels. The effects of the economic crisis have not been felt evenly. Low-wage jobs that require less education were more likely to vanish in the economic free fall. That has spelled disaster for Black and Latinx workers in particular, who are overrepresented in those positions. As of June 2020, the unemployment rate for white workers was 10.1 percent, compared with 15.4 percent for Black workers and 14.5 percent for Latinx workers.

“The whole U.S. political economy was like a giant preexisting condition and Covid just came along and exposed it all,” said Richard V. Reeves, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It,” at a recent conference.

As the United States tries to pull itself out of the recession, what are the good jobs that will be left? And what are the jobs of the future that will be created as Americans adapt to a socially distanced lifestyle? Can American businesses, governments and education systems seize the moment to find more equitable ways of operating? And what educational pathways are the best routes to good jobs, for younger workers and for those interested in changing careers?

We explore those questions and more in our reporting on the changing face of America’s workforce and the educational pathways to good jobs.  

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New skills

Already, the country has seen the coronavirus pandemic accelerate trends that predated this current crisis. One is the move toward automation. Chief executives are stepping up their investments in artificial intelligence and automation as social distancing forces new ways of working. Workforce experts say that won’t necessarily cost jobs in aggregate so much as change the skills that are required for them.  

Meanwhile, calls for companies to help their workers reskill and retrain are growing louder. Traditionally, though, the United States has invested very little in training workers compared with other nations. Will this time be different? And what might successful upskilling efforts look like? A growing movement of businesses, employees and training groups has been pushing back against “degree inflation” and identifying new ways of getting workers skills; perhaps their efforts offer one path. Meanwhile, labor force experts are increasingly calling for a massive federal investment in programs to retrain workers displaced by the pandemic. 

Many workers say they want new skills – but they don’t necessarily have access to the right training to acquire those skills. In a June 2020 survey, 35 percent of workers said they would change their fields if they were laid off. But of those who were interested in changing careers, fewer than half felt confident they could get the skills and training required. Those surveyed strongly preferred shorter-term, nondegree programs and skills training over degree programs.

Faster solutions

Even before the pandemic, Americans were eyeing shorter-term, less expensive ways of getting skills. Apprenticeships and microcredentials were spreading as options for people looking to enter or change careers. But not all programs are high quality; workers need help sorting the good from the bad. And that kind of guidance often isn’t available. For example, according to the Lumina Foundation, fewer than 10 percent of the 4,000 colleges and other providers issuing  industry certifications are accredited or reviewed by a third party. (The Lumina Foundation is one of the many funders of The Hechinger Report.)

The coronavirus further complicates Americans’ ability to acquire education. Not all programs can make the switch to remote instruction, and not all workers have the ability to get online. Middle-wage jobs in wind energy and nursing had been growing steadily before the coronavirus struck, for example. But those careers typically require hands-on training that can’t be done virtually. Instruction in tech jobs like cybersecurity is more easily convertible to remote learning. Those jobs, which were growing apace in recent years, haven’t been insulated from the economic chaos, but they may rebound more quickly than those in some other industries.    

Labor market experts and educators have been talking for years about the future of work. Now a new workforce reality has arrived. But it remains to be seen how successfully America can fight economic collapse while giving workers and students a boost into a more equitable future.