For career success, higher degree means higher earnings

The charts don’t lie: If you want to have a decent shot at a decent living in Michigan, you must be prepared to sit in a classroom – virtual or otherwise – the rest of your life.

Standing still means falling behind – or just plain falling.

“All of my kids realize they have to be lifelong learners,” said Allen Park High School counselor Stephanie Wollard.

The truth of that statement is in the numbers: The average pay for the most common jobs available to a Michigan high school graduate over the next decade is just $23,367. That’s below the poverty line for a family of four.

But get a little more education and the picture improves markedly: a post-high school training certificate, like those given to welders and hairdressers, bumps pay to $31,212; for a two-year associate’s degree, average pay in Michigan nearly doubles to $59,391. And if you have what it takes for a four-year degree, pay can zoom past $80,000.

It’s not just about money: the risk of unemployment falls by nearly half for the college graduate compared with a high school graduate.

“The single most important thing is to get more educated,” said Lou Glazer, President of Michigan Future Inc., an Ann Arbor-based nonprofit working to improve the state’s economy.

Glazer is talking about what needs to happen in the state overall – increasing its college-educated talent supply. But he said it applies to the individual as well: Learn a skill, then learn some more. And be prepared to keep on learning.

“Either we get younger and better-educated or we get poorer,” Glazer said. “That’s the debate the state should be having.”

Michigan falling short

But trouble looms, according to jobs projection data analyzed for Bridge. For every computer-related job in 2023, there will be seven others at the mall and the local diner. The state will remain dominated, numbers-wise, by low-paying retail and restaurant work.

Like Michigan, low-wage jobs in Minnesota are growing, said Glazer, who recently compared the two states and found Michigan trailing badly in important economic areas.

“But they’re getting the high-wage job growth too and that’s what Michigan needs,” he said.

That’s not to say there aren’t good Michigan-based jobs: There will be an estimated 1,500 annual openings in computer fields through 2023. Yet Michigan’s 15 public universities are producing just over 800 degree-holding computer nerds a year, though two-year programs help fill that gap.

In other fields, it’s worse: There are, for instance, thousands of would-be journalists produced by state universities a year fighting for an estimated 350 jobs annually.

But if you want to become a personal financial manager, you’re in luck: It’s expected the state will need 2,400 of those every year yet only 1,500 are graduating from Michigan’s public universities each spring.

“There are a number of mismatches,” said James Jacobs, president of Macomb Community College and a national authority on tackling the jobs-education gap.

Macomb is working with the federal government and other community colleges to better prepare students for the world that exists, not the world they want to live in. It has meant working closely with employers and teaching the “foundational” skills that employers crave: An ability to communicate and work together, the talent to solve problems – equally important for the engineer and the electrician.

For a state with one of the lowest levels of educational attainment (translation: 35 other states have a greater percentage of people with a college degree), Michigan faces an uphill battle to alter the narrative that has seen the state’s per-capita income ranking plummet from 18th in 2000 to 35th in 2012 (it fell a staggering 17 places – from 20th to 37th – in the six years before the recession officially began in 2007).

Those economic hard times forever altered the composition of the state’s economy and Glazer and others have said the manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back. The state has to find more diverse, knowledge-based industries to replace the one that had served the state so well for so long.

To do so will affect not only the 18-year-old who once never considered advance learning. Even those who choose college will have to change.

It’s not enough to spend four years reading Fitzgerald and Chaucer and think some company will want your cultured brain. Now you have to buttress your Mensa membership with a few real-world skills.

Pushback on liberal arts

“In the ’90s, in Michigan, if you had a smile and a degree, you had a job,” said Troy Farley, director of career counseling at Grand Valley State University. “We kind of got spoiled.”

Most employers no longer have time to turn the well-rounded student into a skill-based employee. And so the history major may have to trade that Early Colonial America class for Accounting 101, Farley said. Or the prospective finance whiz will have to do a stint as a bank teller rather than tend bar at the campus watering hole.

“Now they expect you to have skills by the time you start,” Farley said.

That’s forced university and college career centers to begin having what Farley calls “tough conversations” earlier in a student’s academic career: They have to begin focusing on what will make them employable longer, far earlier. They cannot wait until the January before they graduate.

“It’s changed the landscape of employment overnight,” Farley said.

High school diploma won’t cut it

That attitude has even pervaded high schools. After watching their parents and friends suffer through the recession, almost all Allen Park High School students now acknowledge, perhaps some grudgingly, that graduation day won’t mark the last time they step foot in a classroom, said Wollard.

Just 10 years ago, some students talked openly about taking their diploma and heading off to Ford or U.S. Steel to “work the line.”

“I don’t ever hear that anymore,” Wollard said.

Perhaps that attitude change is rooted in what teachers and counselors have long been saying. But it could also be a reflection of the world they’ve endured: The district has seen its free-and-reduced lunch population quadruple from 2002 to 2012 as families that once relied on steady manufacturing jobs have had to find other work.

On a field trip to the Ford truck plant, Wollard said students noticed that even the line workers are quasi-nerds, using computers, not just hydraulic wrenches.

“The way jobs get cut, who gets the jobs that are left on the line?” Wollard asked. Then she answered her own question: “The guys who got more training.”

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Tue, 12/17/2013 - 4:02pm
Ok ... so how do you square his up with the other stat tossed around that half of all bachelor's degree holders are working in jobs that don't require them?
MIke Wilkinson
Tue, 12/17/2013 - 4:31pm
Matt, I haven't seen that stat before. What's undeniable is the one that those with a college degree suffer half the rate of joblessness as those without one. Even if their job that doesn't require one (perhaps manager of a fast-food restaurant?) they may have knowledge and skill- sets that insulate them from the unemployment line.
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Sun, 12/22/2013 - 12:41pm
Mike, here are some clips relating to that stat you say you have not seen: New research released Monday says nearly half of the nation’s recent college graduates work jobs that don’t require a degree. The report, from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, concludes that while college-educated Americans are less likely to collect unemployment, many of the jobs they do have aren't worth the price of their diplomas. Of 41.7 million working college graduates in 2010, about 48 percent of the class of 2010 work jobs that require less than a bachelor’s degree, and 38 percent of those polled didn’t even need high school diplomas, the report found. Authors Richard Vedder, Jonathan Robe and Christopher Denhart said that the country could be overeducating its citizens, and asked if too many public dollars are spent on producing graduates that the nation's economy doesn't need. The report found that the number of college grads will grow by 19 million between 2010 and 2020, while the number of jobs requiring that education is expected to grow by less than 7 million. In the report's executive summary, the researchers claimed that 15 percent of taxi drivers had at least a bachelor's degree in 2010, compared to 1 percent in 1970 -- despite little change in the job's requirements -- as one illustration of their findings. "Maybe we should incentivize colleges to more accurately counsel students," Vedder told the Chronicle of Higher Education. "If you get a degree in business administration, you may not necessarily walk into a middle-class life. There's a good chance you may end up being a bartender." So Mike, shouldn't we be working in the direction of making education a little more appropriate for the work place? I am a Professional Engineer with about 40 years experience in Engineering and putting new-hire college graduates to work. Do you know what the first question is that nearly all 'new-hires' ask on that first day of work? 'I'm your new Engineer!' 'What do you want me to do?' So, my first thought with the first few dozen of these 'new-hires' was 'What can you do, that is appropriate for what we do in the world of work?' I then watch them struggle, and I watch companies struggle for up to five years providing, at their expense, at least some type of training for these poor kids so they can work productively. Many companies just don't. (At one company I was one of six hiring managers and I reviewed over 200 resumes and selected six I felt I wanted to bring on board. The other five managers rejected every single one. No experience and they didn't have the time to train them.) Many of the new-hires I get are totally surprised that they are not being left totally to their own devices. 'No one has ever given us this type of assistance in how to do things. Thanks! Mike, What do think schools, here in Michigan, say to me, when I offer to talk to them about the urgency of international competitiveness or what the world of work actually needs from schools? You would be ashamed, I think, of how little value schools actually place on honest work, building businesses, work ethic, salesmanship, respect for what children want to do in life, and how the words they misdefine are actually used in business. How much respect do you think education has for the people building the world of work?
Mon, 12/23/2013 - 11:20am
Leon: very interesting. I like most small business people I know put much more emphasis on a demonstrated work ethic and experience than any degree a perspective employee might have. The other commonly heard and believable statement from successful individuals is how they learned what they needed for a successful career from on the job learning not from school. College completion used to be a way of demonstrating a work ethic and initiative, I'm not so sure about that any more. Thanks!
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Mon, 12/23/2013 - 10:25pm
Mike, thanks for the reply. When I talk to schools, or students I talk about some of the successes I have had. I guess that amounts to OJT, but not in the usual sense. These occurred where companies gave me as an Engineer or Manager, a free hand to make mistakes, and learn new things. On one little project I increased production 10X in three weeks, where it had be stalled for years. For a large division of a Fortune Five Hundred company I increased their sales by 40% per year for 10 years, at 20% profit each year. For a small company I doubled the size of the company for two years. For a prestigious Space Company I was sort of challenged by the owner to use his ultra-fast work rate as a standard. So I increased every Engineer's work rate in the Engineering Department by 4X, faster than his. My biggest idea was learned while escorting a Chief Engineer from Japan around our company. (He couldn't speak English.) I had a profound realization, took a big risk and engineered a special computer program, that wound up competing with NASTRAN. I used it first for proposals and won 7 major international programs for my company with it. I put a bunch of these ideas together into a set of 10 standards, for use by students, in public schools or any kind of learning situation. I think if students learned such standards in Middle School or Elementary School, that they could then apply them to each thing they learn thereafter, and and be far better prepared for the work-a-day world when they come face to face with it. Thanks again for the reply.