The Wall Street Journal recently published an editorial by economists William A. Kelly Jr. and Elizabeth Sawyer Kelly that critiques President Obama’s free community college plan, which would provide two years of tuition-free community college to students who meet specific criteria. They cite Census Bureau reports that 28% of the workforce already has an associate’s degree or some college and BLS projections that only 17% of new jobs through 2022 will require this level of degree, suggesting that this is hardly the time to concern ourselves with producing more college-trained workers. But associate’s degrees aren’t all the same, and neither are all regional economies. While there may be a national excess in total associate degrees, specific regional worker shortages (also known as skills gaps) remain.
The fact is, students need to learn skills that are in demand in their local workforce. Community colleges have long since known that skilled worker surpluses and shortages must be assessed on a region-by-region and occupation-by-occupation basis, which is why they are uniquely suited to respond to local business needs and improve their regional economies. This is also why so many colleges partner with EMSI in their efforts to understand how regional labor market data can drive student success.
To demonstrate how opportunities vary from region to region—and why labor market data is an essential consideration for students, educators, and policy-makers—we selected two distinct metros to analyze, both of which are highly ranked by our Labor Market 150 Index. Of course, there are certain occupations that seem to be growing everywhere, such as registered nurses and truck drivers. But are there well-paying occupations experiencing regional worker shortages that can be attained with less than a bachelor’s degree? What regional surpluses, if any, exist?
In order to identify these needs and excesses, we considered only the occupations that are projected to have at least 1,000 regional jobs by 2018, and evaluated them based on several indicators, including projected growth over the next five years, median hourly wage, regional completions from local postsecondary institutions, and 2014-2018 estimated annual openings.