Georgetown report emphasizes central role of postsecondary education in U.S. workforce

As the U.S. continues to transition from an industrial to a service-based economy, workers will need to have more education to thrive, according to a new report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, which analyzed economic projections through 2031.

The report finds that in 2021, 68% of the 155 million jobs in the U.S. required at least some postsecondary education or training, compared to just 32% in 1983. CEW researchers predict that share will rise to 72% of the projected 171 million jobs in 2031, with 42% of all positions requiring at least a bachelor’s degree. In 2021, the number of jobs for workers with less than a high school diploma fell to 10% and is projected to be just 6% by 2031.

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“The fastest-growing occupation and industry sectors are those that have workers with the most postsecondary education and training,” CEW says. “The economy will continue to create jobs for workers with a high school diploma or less, but these jobs, in many cases, do not offer high enough earnings for the workers who hold them to achieve upward economic mobility.”

A tale of two economies

The U.S.’s bifurcated economy is exacerbating the wealth gap between those without a postsecondary education, who, to a great extent, make up the “large but sluggish blue-collar and skilled-trades economy,” and those with a postsecondary education, who find careers in the “smaller but faster-growing managerial and professional economy.” The rise in careers requiring postsecondary education is due in part to the increase in computer and data-processing services, although many industries have increasingly depended on a postsecondary education.

CEW researchers have organized those fast-growing managerial and professional jobs into five clusters: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and social sciences; education; health care professional and technical positions; community services and arts; and managerial and professional office positions. Between 2021 and 2031, 95% of these jobs will require at least some postsecondary education.

Four clusters make up blue-collar and skilled-trades occupations: sales and office support, health care support, food and personal services, and blue collar. Between 2021 and 2031, 42% of these occupations will be available for workers with a high school diploma or less. By 2031, 93% of these jobs will employ workers with at least a high school diploma, and 83% will require at least some college but no credential. Automation is more likely to replace physical and low-level cognitive tasks, while jobs that require high-level cognitive and fine motor skills and independence are less likely to be replaced by technology.

“Postsecondary education is no longer just the preferred pathway to middle-class jobs,” CEW researchers say. “It is, increasingly, the only pathway.”

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