Most high-paying jobs in Michigan require higher education, study says

Alex Harring
The Detroit News

While more than half of the jobs in Michigan require at most a high school diploma, a report released this week from the nonpartisan economic research group Michigan Future Inc. shows the lion's share of the state's highest-paying jobs are reserved for applicants with bachelor's degrees.

The report draws on May 2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics data, a time when the economy was strong. Given the economy's solid performance, the link between education and wage highlights the challenges of finding a high-paying job, especially for those with no higher education.

Michigan Future Vice President Sarah Szurpicki

"In short, getting a high school degree is no longer a ticket to the middle class," Sarah Szurpicki, a vice president at Michigan Future, wrote in the report's introduction. The report's data analysis was conducted by Donald Grimes, a senior research specialist at the University of Michigan.

The report also upends the notion that the preponderance of what people see as "good jobs" are those in blue-collar fields or in science, technology, engineering or math (commonly referred to as STEM), according to Michigan Future President Lou Glazer. With the report's data, "that's simply not accurate," he said.

Michigan Future President Lou Glazer

Michigan Future classifies 56% of jobs in Michigan as "lower wage" for paying under the national annual median of $39,810. Jobs with wages above $64,240, or the 75th percentile of national wages, were named "higher-paying," but these roles accounted for only 22% of total jobs. Roles that fell in the middle of the two income markers accounted for the remaining 22%.

More than half of Michiganians are paid below the $39,810 national median. At jobs below the median, more than four out of every five of require at most a high school diploma. Only 2% of these jobs required a bachelor's degree.

But as wages increase, a larger share of jobs require further education. Among "middle paying jobs," classified as ones that pay between $39,810 and $64,240 annually, nearly a quarter require an apprenticeship or other formal training and another quarter require a bachelor's. More jobs in this pay range require a bachelor's than have a high school or no diploma requirement.

Among the top quarter of jobs by income, the difference becomes a disparity. Almost four-fifths of those jobs require a bachelor's degree. Only 1% have a high school diploma or no education requirement, excluding 15% who get promoted into roles that do not necessarily require a four-year degree.

Glazer described Michigan's economy and labor market as having two tiers: one for those with higher education and one for those who don't.

"The funnel is very narrow," he said. "For those without a four-year degree, it basically means that with the way the labor market was structured in 2019, they are highly likely to end up in a lower-paying occupation. That's just the reality these days. It's certainly not good news."

What this report can show policymakers, Glazer said, is that increasing training opportunities is only one piece of supporting the working class. The state economy is built on having a majority of low-paying jobs, he said.

Glazer said this bolsters the need to provide added support to these workers in their current roles and at their current pay level, beyond just offering routes to entering higher-paying occupations.

"If the goal is having an economy that as it grows it benefits all, the only way we can do that is by figuring out how you increase wages for low-paid workers in low- paid jobs," he said. "You can't skip that step."

For high school and college students, Glazer said he hopes this report can help educators and policymakers provide clear guidance. For low-income students looking to move up economically, Glazer said the data show the safest bet for achieving that is with a four-year degree and they should be advised accordingly. 

There's also an unnecessary focus on STEM and skilled trades as solid middle-class occupations, Glazer said. The report paints a different picture, showing that there are fewer skilled work opportunities than people may think.

"To us, this really highlights the need to give kids, particular high school and college kids, an accurate portrayal of the labor market," he said. "We've got to stop telling kids the only two paths to good paying jobs are STEM or skilled trades, because it's simply not true."

Twitter: @alex_harring