The plight of less-educated workers has fueled everything from Donald Trump's political rise to bestsellers like "Hillbilly Elegy."
Yet what's the actual state of work for people who lack a college degree? In some respects, their job prospects are relatively healthy. Indeed, a new study from Georgetown University and JPMorgan Chase (JPM) finds the U.S. now has 30 million good jobs for less-educated workers that pay a median annual wage of $55,000, up from 27 million of these jobs in 1991.
While that growth may seem surprising given the narrative of job losses for less-educated Americans, nuances illustrate how the job market is increasingly shifting its focus toward less-educated workers who have additional training as well as college-educated workers.
For example, the share of all good jobs held by workers without a bachelor's degree has declined from 60 percent to 45 percent, while college-educated Americans now hold the majority of the country's good jobs.
"Part of the national dialogue is that we have taken tremendous losses in the blue-collar industrial economy," said Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce and lead author of the report. "So while we've known for a long time that we were losing those jobs, no one had tracked the sector of the economy where you could get a good job without a BA. One question was: How much of that is left?"
He added: "We found a lot more of these jobs than we thought there were."
At the same time, those good jobs -- which the study defines as paying at least $35,000 per year for people younger than 45 and at least $45,000 for those over 45 -- are shifting from industrial sectors and to newer skill-based industries.
Manufacturing losses, as well as those in the transportation and utilities sectors, are a very real phenomenon, the study found. On the other hand, demand is growing in skilled services such as health care, finance and education, which are favoring a different type of worker, the researchers found.
"These good jobs have changed," said Chauncy Lennon, head of Workforce Initiatives at JPMorgan Chase. "They're more likely today to be in health care and other service industries. You have to have a high school degree plus some additional training. Maybe not a four-year degree, but something post-high school."
In the 1970s, high-school graduates would be fairly certain of finding a stable job with solid pay, but those same types of jobs today require vocational training, a certificate or even an associate's degree. The increase in good jobs since 1992 have largely been grabbed by workers with some college education or an associate's degree, while workers with only high school degrees have seen a loss of 1 million good jobs, the researchers found.
What about the less-educated white men who helped Donald Trump secure the White House? It turns out that men predominantly hold those good jobs for less-educated workers; women hold just three out of 10 of those jobs. That's because occupational sorting -- through bias or social roles -- tends to push women into lower-paying jobs like retail work, which don't qualify as good jobs by the report's standards.
"It surprised us because we thought there would be a rise in women's good jobs, but there just isn't," Carnavale said. In the past few decades, "women also lost a lot of good jobs. It's a story that never gets told."
While men have certainly lost manufacturing jobs, there has been less focus on how middle-class jobs for less-educated women have also vanished. Think back to the post-World War II decades, when women without college degrees entered the labor market through clerical roles and office jobs. Technology has eliminated many of those jobs, Carnavale said.
"The story in the American mind is that of the male manufacturing worker in Detroit and Youngstown," he said. "There's another story that parallels that which never gets told: Women lost a lot of good jobs in office functions."
Today, women need a college degree to find a good job, partly because of occupational sorting in industries such as manufacturing and construction, which still favor men. That could explain why college enrollment is now tipped toward women, while men are more assured of finding a good job without that piece of parchment.
"Basically," said Carnavale, "women need college degrees in order to earn a decent wage, in part that's because they are segregated by occupation and majors."