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Employment in the Next Decade: The Word From the Bureau of Labor Statistics

Jul 21, 2011

In tough economic times, it may seem as though the job market's future is hopeless, but according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) that's not the case. What does the future hold for America's workforce, and how can job-seekers prepare themselves?

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By Eric Garneau

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Jobs by the Numbers

As you can see, when the BLS looked at the statistics in 1973, 14.6 million jobs (16% of all those available) required a bachelor's degree or above. Workers with associate's degrees or trade school diplomas filled 12% of the workforce. The majority of available positions - a full 72% - could be held by those with a high school diploma or less. That comes out to 55.6 million workers with no college experience.

The BLS again compiled these statistics in 2007, and unsurprisingly things changed significantly in the intervening years. While the total workforce grew by about 70%, the number of jobs that required a bachelor's degree or higher skyrocketed to 41.8 million - an increase of almost 300%. Those positions requiring associate's degrees or trade school experience made a similar leap, though not quite as substantial. Jobs available to those with high school diplomas or less, though, actually fell three points. Perhaps more importantly, in 2007 those jobs made up a significantly smaller percent of the overall workforce, accounting for only 41% of all employees.

Further, despite recent economic setbacks, the BLS predicts that job opportunities will continue to grow. By 2018 they see an eight percent increase in the total workforce, split about evenly between jobs that require bachelor's degrees and those that require associate's degrees or similar training (bachelor's degrees are favored by four percentage points). The number of jobs where applicants can get by on a high school diploma or less is expected to remain completely static, and those positions are predicted to account for only 38% of the workforce.

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Get Ready to Work

While about 60% of all jobs currently require some kind of college degree, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that only 40% of Americans earn one before the age of 27, presumably a point in their lives when they'd be engaged with some kind of career. Further, some pundits argue that on-time degree completion rates (bachelor's degrees in six years, associate's degrees in three) are far too low. Roughly half of U.S. college students leave school with a bachelor's degree in that span; for associate's degree seekers, the number's under 30%. Is the future U.S. workforce hurting itself?

If you're a part of the next decade of workers but feel like college may be outside of your means, take heart. Across the country initiatives are springing up that aim to bring you an affordable, quality higher education experience. For example, Washington State education officials are working on making course materials for their community college classes free - or nearly free - via a project called the Open Course Library. In Florida, some community colleges have begun to offer 4-year degree programs to help students who, because of financial or time constraints, can't enroll in a traditional university. There's also the matter of OpenCourseWare (OCW), free online college material accessible to all. Though currently no form of credentialing or degree-granting exists for OCW, that may not be too far off.

No doubt earning an education will continue to be an important factor in finding employment. What that education entails is up to you, and you have a plethora of options - trade school, community college or a 4-year university just to name a few. Whether your school offers a broad liberal arts education or strict job preparation, you can rest assured that there's value in that degree, both professionally and personally.

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