When I first read about a new report claiming that the overwhelming majority of new American jobs created during this feeble U.S. recovery have gone to workers with at least some college in their background, I was awfully suspicious. And when I looked into the matter further, I was reminded once again how careful you need to be when reading news about the economy.
The study, put out by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, found that of the 11.6 million jobs created once the current expansion took hold, 8.4 million (72.41 percent) went to holders of at least a bachelor’s degree. Another 3.1 million jobs (26.72 percent) went to members of the workforce holding either an associate’s degree or boasting “some college” education.
The implications look pretty clear: There’s nothing wrong with the American jobs market,that better educated workers can’t cure, and there’s nothing more important that Americans can do to improve their economic prospects than to take this hint.
The only problem: These results track only if (a) everything else we know about the labor market is wrong; or (b) higher education has just about lost its power to guarantee hard-working Americans comfortably middle class lives at the least.
Given all the uncertainties surrounding so much economic data, the first possibility certainly could be true. But as I’ve written, that would mean throwing out reams of statistics – like those showing that the wages, salaries, and benefits earned by Americans are growing at historically sluggish rates for a recovery. Moreover, a deeper (but not incredibly deep) dive into figures from the same source used by the Georgetown researchers provides strong evidence for the second proposition – which is of course much less bullish for the labor market’s fundamentals.
The Georgetown findings are based on the government’s Current Population Survey (CPS) – one of two main data series yielding information about American workers and about the unemployed. I decided to compare them with what I knew from its companion, the Current Employment Statistics (CES). Whereas the CPS is based on interviews with the nation’s households, the CES gets its information from employers – including government agencies. The Labor Department believes that the two series track well over time, but periodically they diverge over the short term.
I wanted to review the CES numbers because they tell us what kinds of jobs, in what sectors of the economy, workers in America are holding – and because I knew from previous work that they’ve consistently revealed that a disturbingly high share of the jobs created during the recovery have come in low-wage industries. Here’s what I learned:
According to the CES, since the job market bottomed in February, 2010, the economy has added 14.16 million full-time workers. (I also found that the CPS increase since then was 11.33 million.) Then I looked at employment increases in sectors known for low pay, like the retail, and leisure and hospitality businesses. And to make sure that I was zeroing in on their low-pay workforce, I examined developments among their non-supervisory workers, thereby stripping out executives and other managerial types.
In retail and leisure and hospitality combined, the non-supervisory headcount has risen by 3.3 million – representing 23.43 percent of total job creation by this measure since the employment recovery began. So that already raises questions about the Georgetown findings and their seemingly most obvious implications.
But those two sectors hardly exhaust the list of low-paying parts of the U.S. economy. As I’ve written, within the high-paying professional and business services sector, there’s a big low-paying sub-sector that includes janitors, security guards, call-center workers, employment office staffers, and the like. If you add their non-supervisory job holders to the above totals, you come to 34.18 percent of recovery-era job creation coming in low-paying positions in low-paying sectors.
Assuming that the Georgetown results as as basically accurate as mine (which are taken straight from Labor Department data tables), a depressing conclusion emerges: Lots of workers with impressive educational credentials are working at dead-end jobs. And this observation is reinforced by all the challenges raised lately to the idea that a college education is a good value for just about everyone.
According to the Georgetown report’s lead author, his study makes clear that “College level skills determines access to decent jobs now. The modern economy continues to leave Americans without a college education behind.” A more comprehensive view of the data actually indicates that the modern economy is leaving record numbers of the college-educated behind, too.