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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

D. Patrick Jones: A bachelor’s degree still matters

D. Patrick Jones For The Spokesman-Review

By D. Patrick Jones

Over the past few months you may have heard whispers that new holders of a four-year degree may not land good jobs. Don’t believe them. Several factors have come together to give an outlook that is the best in years. These include a strong economy, the accelerated retirement of the baby boomers and a slowdown in college-going rates. The trends are likely to continue.

To trump anecdotes, Washingtonians can turn to near- and mid-term projections about the future workforce. Every year, economists at Washington State Department of Employment Security provide labor-market forecasts for the state and its 12 different workforce development areas. They use a methodology from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, calculating projections for both occupations and industries. The results can be very detailed. The count of specific occupations, for example, runs into the hundreds.

The most recent forecasts were released last August. At the Institute for Public Policy and Economic Analysis at Eastern Washington University, we adopt the more conservative of the two methodologies used by the state; it counts openings from three factors: economic growth, change of occupations and retirements.

The results are surprising. For Washington, Employment Security economists forecast annual job openings over the second half of the decade at 495,000. This implies that in every year, about one-eighth of the jobs in the state will be filled by someone new who is not (yet) in the same field. A small portion of the openings is due to projected economic growth; most are attributable to people leaving the field, either for another occupation or to retire.

Of the annual total, more than 132,000, or about 27%, will require a bachelor’s degree or higher. (Degree requirements are based on the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook.) The Department of Employment Security forecasts that Washington’s top 10 occupations requiring at least a bachelor’s degree will be, ranked: software developers, market research analysts, general managers, business operations specialists, management analysts, registered nurses, accountants, elementary school teachers, computer systems analysts and advertising managers.

For Spokane County, the department foresees about 6,700 openings requiring at least a bachelor’s degree. That’s 21% of all annual openings. Here the list of the forecasted top 10 occupations is a bit different. Ranked, they are: registered nurses, business operations specialists, accountants, counselors, general managers, management analysts, elementary school teachers, general teachers, self-enrichment teachers and human resource specialists. Note that no computer-related occupation lands in Spokane’s top 10, reflecting the relatively low profile of tech companies here.

How well is the state doing to fill projected openings that require at least a bachelor’s degree? In a word, poorly.

In work done for EWU’s board of trustees, the institute compiled the number of bachelor’s degrees from the six public higher educational institutions and all 10 of the nonprofit private colleges and universities in the state. For the most recently available year (2019), bachelor’s degrees from the public institutions totaled about 26,500. For the privates, about 6,200. Or altogether, nearly 33,000. Master’s degrees issued added another 4,000-5,000. Doctorates and professional degrees contributed about another 1,500.

The number of degrees issued by these 16 universities and colleges will likely climb from 2019 through the end of the current decade. But at current college enrollment rates, probably not by much. That would leave less than one-third of Washington’s annual openings requiring at least a bachelor’s filled by Washington higher education graduates!

For sure, employers have alternatives to locally produced talent: import it from other states or from abroad. This has in fact happened for a good part of the state’s tech industry and health care sector. But wouldn’t we want to see more of our own children fill these jobs?

Unless college-going rates here and across the state move up dramatically, this simply won’t happen. Increasingly, our K-12 students come from low-income backgrounds where college-going is not an established pathway to adulthood. There are thankfully initiatives, such as the Say Yes campaign led by the Innovia Foundation, here and statewide to lower financial barriers to higher education.

But the gap between the number of college graduates and the demand for college graduates will likely continue to yawn for years to come. It is fair to point out that a parallel gap for occupations requiring a two-year degree exists. It is also fair to acknowledge that projections several years into the future inevitably contain errors. But the chasm between the issuance of new college degrees and jobs requiring these credentials is so large that even with diminished projections, it doesn’t disappear.

Beyond the aggregate numbers, the academic major behind the degree matters. There are dozens of occupations requiring at least a bachelors where the forecast is subdued at best. Thankfully, information to guide higher education plans is readily available to families, school counselors and college advisers.

A dim outlook for most college grads in Washington state? Not by a country mile.

D. Patrick Jones, Ph.D., of Spokane, is the executive director of the Institute for Public Policy & Economic Analysis at Eastern Washington University.

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