“I’m going to bring jobs back to the United States like no one else can.”
These words, spoken by President-elect Donald Trump during his campaign, were music to the ears of many of the working-class voters outside the nation’s trendy metro economies. These workers and their communities have suffered mightily from the decline of good jobs, especially in manufacturing, that only required a high-school education.
President-elect Trump attributed the massive losses in these jobs to trade deals, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was signed into law by President Clinton in 1993. But the reality is that 88 percent of the manufacturing jobs were lost because we’ve gotten better at using machines to manufacture goods like cars, home appliances, and computers.
So good, in fact, that we’re producing twice as much as we did in the 1980s with 7 million fewer workers.
Factories have substituted workers with a high-school education or less for new postsecondary-trained technicians working with powerful information technology. The manufacturing workforce has shifted from the blue-collar factory-floor assembly line to skilled industrial design, logistics, marketing, and other white-collar functions that add value up the line.
Outsourcing and competition with countries like China and Mexico are only a small part of the story of manufacturing’s decline. Hopefully, we are in the midst of a manufacturing renaissance, but manufacturing is unlikely to regain its former glory as a job creator. Out of the 2.7 million manufacturing jobs we lost in the Great Recession, we’ve regained only 1.7 million—we’re still a million jobs short of where we were before the recession.
And the new manufacturing jobs aren’t the same as the ones we lost. In the recession, we lost 1.6 million manufacturing jobs for high school-educated workers; only 200,000 of those have come back in the recovery. Meanwhile, we’ve added 1.5 million manufacturing jobs for workers with at least some education and training beyond high school.
The road ahead for the American working class, including manufacturing workers, is not the Old Middle. Since the 1970s, the share of jobs for people with a high-school education or less has declined from 72 percent to 38 percent, and wages for workers in this group have declined by 15 percent. There is no way back to the legions of good manufacturing jobs that only required high school.
The way forward for the American working class is the New Middle: career fields that pay and don’t require a bachelor’s degree, but do require at least education or training beyond high school. There are millions of good middle-skill jobs that require less than a B.A. but more than high school. Through 2024, the economy will create more than 16 million middle-skill job openings, including 3 million from newly-created jobs and 13 million from Baby Boomer retirements. Trump’s proposed infrastructure program could create millions more, the vast majority of which would require less than a bachelor’s degree.
Many jobs in the New Middle pay well: 40 percent pay more than $55,000 annually and 14 percent pay more than $80,000 annually. By comparison, the average bachelor’s degree-holder earns $61,000 annually. But more and more, what you make depends on what you take. Almost a third of two-year associate degrees and a large share of one-year certificates, especially those concentrated in in-demand fields like healthcare and STEM, pay more than B.A.s.
Where can you find these good jobs? They’re spread across America, but in many states in the South and Rust Belt won by President-elect Trump, middle-skill jobs comprise a larger share of the employment base than in coastal states, where high-end service jobs that require a bachelor’s degree or more tend to dominate. In Ohio, for example, 30 percent of jobs are middle-skill jobs, compared to only 18 percent in Virginia.
However, even in Trump states, jobs have moved from small-town factories to offices and hospitals in cities and require more education and training than the jobs they replaced. The new jobs may be out of reach for many working-class Americans, often because they don’t have the necessary education and training or aren’t connected to places where jobs are being created.
The B.A. is still the gold standard for a well-rounded education grounded in the liberal arts, but it is important for parents and students to realize that there are alternative pathways along the way to the B.A. that are both affordable and financially lucrative.
You might not know it by reading the news, but these pathways represent a sizable part of the American workforce and an ascendant mission in the nation’s burgeoning postsecondary education and training system. In fact, more students are enrolled in certificate or associate degree programs, the two most common pathways to middle-skill careers, than in B.A. programs.
Over the next four years, the Trump administration has an opportunity to address the economic and educational challenges facing those who were left behind by the old manufacturing sector. We need investment in middle-skills pathways, including employer-provided training and community college programs.
But the solution does not lie in nostalgia. We cannot move nimbly toward a successful economic future if we continue to insist on dragging the dead weight of our past economic successes along behind.