No college degree? Midwest best, NYC, D.C. worst areas for job seekers

Shelly Hagan
Job seekers without a bachelor’s degree have better options than in prior years but may have to migrate to a more receptive area within a polarized U.S. economy.

With unemployment near a half-century low, employers are struggling to find workers and lowering educational requirements as a result. That means job seekers without a bachelor’s degree have better options than in prior years but may have to migrate to a more receptive area within a polarized U.S. economy.

Opportunities for workers with little to no post-high school education vary across the country, with the Midwest having some of the best options and New York City among the worst. Lansing, Toledo and St. Louis are a few of the metro areas with the highest share of jobs that pay wages above the national average and don’t require a college degree, according to a new study by researchers from the Federal Reserve Banks of Cleveland and Philadelphia.

The study ranked 121 U.S. metro areas by share of “opportunity employment,” which is defined as employment accessible to workers without a bachelor’s degree and typically paying above the national median wage, adjusted for regional inflation.

Seventy percent of the top 20-ranked U.S. metros can be found in the Midwest, suggesting “the prevalence of smaller, lower cost cities as it relates to the level of opportunity,” said co-author Kyle Fee of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. “That’s something not a lot of folks think about when they think about the Midwest, but it shows up in our data.” The top 10 metro areas generally have a lower cost of living.

Coastal metro areas rank poorly. Washington, D.C., New York City, and Los Angeles occupied the bottom three spots with opportunity employment rates of 14.6, 15.3 and 15.4 percent, respectively. Compare that with top-rated Toledo, which had 34 percent opportunity employment.

The bottom 10 show a more diverse mix with both larger economies like Washington and San Jose and smaller metro areas like Myrtle Beach, a town that is dominated by lower-wage employment in retail and hospitality, according to co-author Keith Wardrip of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.

That’s despite Myrtle Beach being one of the fastest growing places in recent years.

“For a place like Myrtle Beach, it may be that they could increase opportunities for less-educated workers by trying to diversify their economy and trying to promote growth in sectors that do pay better wages for less-educated workers,” Wardrip said.

The higher paying sub-baccalaureate occupations that don’t require college include registered nurses, heavy truck drivers, bookkeepers, repair workers, carpenters, electricians and patrol officers. These jobs vary by metro area.

In Detroit, assemblers and fabricators make up the largest opportunity occupation with 48,100 jobs. And in El Paso, heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers are at the top with 5,200 jobs.

In Akron, Ohio (No. 16), registered nurse is the top opportunity occupation with 5,400 jobs paying an annual median wage of $69,200. The metro’s second best job group is secretaries and administrative assistants, providing 4,700 jobs and an annual median wage of $34,300.

Employment in the medical device industry in Memphis has grown 50 percent since 1999 –more than four times the national rate of growth, according to the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce.

Four metro areas face triple negatives compared to the national employment environment. Bridgeport, CT, San Francisco, San Jose and Trenton, NJ, each have an unfavorable occupational mix, high employers’ educational expectations and steep regional price levels.