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  • Writer's pictureProject on Workforce Team

Is higher education keeping up with the labor market?

Text over yellow background: Is Higher Education Keeping up with the Labor Market?
By Kerry McKittrick, Arkādijs Zvaigzne, Julian Hayes, Michael Nelson and Ali Epstein

It depends on the region.

In some areas, employment grew at a much faster rate than students graduated from college. Here are the top ten medium- and large-sized regions where employment outpaced college graduate growth from 2014 to 2019.

Top ten medium-sized regions where worker growth outpaced graduate growth (2014-2019)

Top ten large-sized regions where worker growth outpaced graduate growth (2014-2019)

*Worker declines in growth

Let’s zoom in on one region.

For example, we can look at New Orleans. Here, employment grew by 9.6%, but graduates slightly decreased during that time period–by 0.2%.

In 16 of the 24 occupations we analyzed, college graduate growth trended in the opposite direction of employment growth, including in business and financial operations. Of the 19 colleges in the region, ten saw declines in graduates with business degrees, even though jobs in the field increased and paid a higher median income than other occupations.

On the other hand, construction and extraction graduates increased in the region, even though employment declined in the field, and the median income is much lower for these jobs. The labor market and higher education were not aligned.

In other regions, colleges increased graduates at about the same rate as employment grew. Here are the top ten medium- and large-sized regions where college and worker growth were most aligned.

Top ten medium-sized regions that have balanced graduate and employment growth

*Worker declines in growth

**Graduate declines in growth

Top ten large-sized regions that have balanced graduate and employment growth

Let’s zoom in.

If we look closer at Laredo, TX, we can see that both college graduates and employment grew in the region at close to double the national growth rate.

But this isn’t true for every industry in the area. For example, while healthcare practitioner employment and job openings increased by 42.2% and 131.5%, respectively, college graduates in these fields actually decreased by 8.5%. This could pose a challenge for the region's healthcare sector.

This brings us to our next insight.

Alignment depends on the job.

Nationally, some fields experienced higher employment growth than college graduate growth from 2014 to 2019. These are the top three occupation categories that increased employment faster than colleges graduated students in the field.

Let’s look at one occupation: healthcare support.

This includes health and personal care aides, nursing assistants, occupational therapy assistants, and dental aides, among other jobs. Employment in this field grew by 33% and job openings grew by 61%. However, students graduating with degrees or certificates in these fields grew by only 7%--much slower than the labor market--which could point to national workforce shortages.

Another occupation is transportation and material moving, which includes pilots, air traffic controllers, truck drivers, traffic technicians, and railroad operators, among other jobs. Employment increased by 39% and job postings increased by 52%, yet college graduates in these fields increased by only 7%. That is, students receiving degrees in civil engineering, equipment operation, railway transportation, and marine science, for example, did not grow as fast as the labor market did from 2014 to 2019.

Explore the data in the College-to-Jobs Map:

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We used the College-to-Jobs Map to conduct this analysis. We define medium-sized regions as those with worker populations between the 50th and 75th percentile. Large-sized regions are those in the 75th percentile and above. We removed online schools to conduct this analysis. To learn more about the College-to-Jobs dataset, please refer to the data documentation.


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