Most U.S. occupations now typically require less than a college degree for entry


Two-thirds of American occupations now typically require less than a college degree for entry, according to new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

As part of an updated series aimed at Americans on the job market, the agency published data showing 39 percent of U.S. occupations require only a high school degree to apply, and 27 percent require less than that.

“Many of the occupations that generally require a high school diploma or less for entry (food preparation, clerical support, and sales) are large in terms of employment and when aggregated these occupations account for about 2/3 of all employment in the economy,” Roger Moncarz, the head of the BLS’s Occupational Employment Projections, said in an email.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to compare this breakdown with historical data, since measurements used in the past don’t match those used currently, the BLS told Fusion.

The agency also said specific jobs in a given occupation often require entry-level education that is higher than what the BLS says they do. For instance, although BLS designates registered nurse as an occupation typically requiring only an associate’s degree for entry, many jobs for registered nurses actually require a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

BLS does note that some fields saw their typical degree requirement for entry increase. Construction managers, for instance, are becoming increasingly specialized. While the position used to normally require only a high school degree for entry, the agency now says prospective candidates should work toward a bachelor’s. But it’s not clear whether wages have increased in parallel, because here too the BLS says shifting methodologies make it difficult to compare the data over time.

Whatever the case, the U.S. now stands atop the developed world in terms of the percentage of its economy devoted to low-wage jobs, according to a recent note from Morgan Stanley’s Ellen Zentner and Paula Campbell. In 2001, the U.S. was only fifth. The median U.S. wage has fallen to $51,939 — about where it was in the late ’90s.

Since the end of the Great Recession, roughly 65 percent of net new U.S. jobs created have been concentrated in low-wage paying industries, they say.

In a recent article, Federal Reserve economist Maria Canon and researcher Yang Liu write that low-skill occupations, like food prep and personal care, will grow 1.44 percent annually, compared with 0.79 percent for middle-skill occupations, like salespeople and repairmen and 1.28 percent for high-skill ones, like managers and technicians.

Why is this happening? Canon and Liu note that this tendency toward job polarization — growth in low and high-wage occupations at the expense of middle-wage ones — began before the Great Recession.

They point to research from MIT economist David Autor, who has argued that while demographic and economic shifts like immigration, an aging population, women entering the labor, and declining manufacturing employment have all played a role, the dominant factor is technology.

As more middle-income jobs become automated, the bulk of labor hours begin to shift into what Autor and University of Zurich economist David Dorn, in a 2013 paper, call “service occupations” that revolve around caring for others in some way, like food workers or home care staff. These tasks tend to involve lower-skills and lower-wages, but cannot be automated.

“The adoption of computers substitutes for low-skill workers performing routine tasks—such as bookkeeping, clerical work, and repetitive production and monitoring activities—which are readily computerized because they follow precise, well-defined procedures,” they write. “Importantly, occupations intensive in these tasks are most commonplace in the middle of the occupational skill and wage distribution.”

As computerization erodes the wages paid to perform repetitive tasks, low-skill workers “reallocate their labor supply to service occupations,” they say.

The only bright spot in all this is that wage growth in the service jobs has actually outperformed other low-skill occupations over the past few decades as labor demand in those sectors increased.

But again, that tends to be the function of other occupations getting wiped out, they write.

“While the past 25 years have seen stagnant or declining real earnings and employment of most low-skill occupations, employment and earnings in service occupations offer a striking exception.”

Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.

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