Michelle Laydon earns $80,000 per year as a senior network engineer in Santa Paula, Calif. She's been working in the IT field for close to 20 years without a college degree, instead working her way up in the field through a mix of on-the-job training and a number of professional certificates, which she has actively renewed throughout her career.
"I'll be quite honest, we have folks who come in to interview who may have a college degree and claim to know this stuff, but who've honestly never had their hands on it,” says Laydon, 50. “When they sit down in my department, it's very intimidating because if you don't know it, you don't know it. With IT, there's just so much to be gained by that hands-on experience."
Workers without a B.A. currently make up about 64% of today's workforce, spanning across a number of industries that go beyond traditional blue-collar jobs. And, despite popular belief, there are plenty of good jobs to be had that don't require a bachelor's degree — about 30 million, to be precise. The news comes from fresh research released Wednesday by Georgetown University and J.P.Morgan Chase & Co., which sought to find out how many workers are in good jobs (defined as those that pay at least $35,000) that don’t require a B.A.
The “New Collar” Job Market
The “Good Jobs That Pay Without a B.A.” report found that while manufacturing jobs on the whole are declining, they're being more than made up for by good jobs in other skilled-service industries like health services, information technology, and financial services; the report's lead author Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, refers to these as "new collar” jobs.
"The dominant narrative was that the American economy was hollowing out, that we were losing all the jobs in the middle, that in the end we're going to end up with an economy that only hired brain surgeons and pool cleaners," Carnevale told MagnifyMoney.
It turns out there is some truth to that — the abundance of blue-collar manufacturing jobs is indeed decreasing — but we're simultaneously seeing a spike in these “new collar” jobs that pay well without requiring a B.A. The takeaway?
"The hollowing-out story, in a way, is being oversold," says Carnevale.
To be certain, college experience does matter in the job market these days.
For the most part, Carnevale says that having some college experience will likely give you a leg up in the job market — professional certificates, some college, associate's degrees, two-year degrees, etc.
"That's where the most striking growth has been,” he says. “In a sense, for a lot of these jobs that used to require only high school, there's been an upward shift in the education requirements for these jobs now."
How to Get a “Good Job” These Days
Despite suffering major job losses, blue-collar industries continue to represent the greatest source (55%) of good jobs for folks without a B.A., according to the report. And while there has been a slight increase in good jobs that pay without a four-year degree, their overall share of good jobs has actually dropped from 60% down to 45%. According to Carnevale’s findings, this is because B.A.-holders are still scooping up more and more of these gigs.
This may be the case, but as “new collar” jobs grow and evolve, workers without a B.A. can still earn a solid living. In some cases, they can even out-earn their higher-educated colleagues.
"You can get a one-year certificate in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, and you'll make more than 30% of the people who get A.A.s, and a fair percentage of the people who get B.A.s, actually," says Carnevale. "In the old days, it was: go to college, get a B.A., earn more money. It's more complicated now. It's more about the field of study."
He adds that the idea that more education translates to more money is still generally true — but there's a whole lot of variation.
"If you get a certificate in engineering or computers, for instance, you'll make more than somebody who gets an A.A. in an academic subject," he says.
There's a wide range of good jobs that don't require a bachelor's degree, from nurses to police officers; electricians to plumbers; bookkeepers to customer service representatives. The report points to a computer support technician earning $60,000 as a perfect example of this new worker demographic.
College Debt vs. Career Prospects
Matt Eyre, an assistant manager at a Tampa, Fla., restaurant, still carries student loan debt from the associate’s degree in music engineering and production he earned a decade ago. But he has no plans to return to school to complete his four-year degree.
"I switched career tracks and have been in restaurant management for about six years now, earning more than I think I'd get in music production," says Eyre, 35. “I honestly don't think having a degree would unlock any new opportunities for me; if anything, it would drive me further into debt."
Eyre made the career jump in New York City, where his entry salary landed at $50,000. After three years of positive reviews from employers and consistent raises, he was earning $60,000 by the time he moved to Tampa in 2014. Despite taking a pay cut (he now earns $48,000 per year), he is still earning more than the $41,250 average salary of assistant managers in the U.S.
"In my field, performance speaks louder than degrees," says Eyre. "I've worked with managers who had bachelor's degrees in hospitality management, and I actually made more than they did because of my experience.”
When it comes to his career, Eyre has fortunately lived in states ripe with “new collar” job opportunities; according to Carnevale’s team, both Florida and New York are among the top four states that offer the largest number of good jobs that don't require a B.A. degree. Texas and California take the top spot on the list, which is good news for Laydon, who works in the Golden State.
According to career resource Glassdoor, the average salary for a senior network engineer like Laydon in the U.S. is just over $104,000. Could Laydon hit that number if she had a B.A.? Maybe, but at this point in her career, like Eyre, she has no interest in taking out loans to pursue a higher degree.
The larger your state’s population, the better odds you might have of landing a good job without a B.A. According to the report, California, Texas, Florida, and New York, which happen to be the more populous states, offer up most of these jobs. Illinois and Pennsylvania are right behind.
MagnifyMoney is a price comparison and financial education website, founded by former bankers who use their knowledge of how the system works to help you save money.