In recent decades, technological change and the global integration it enables have been rapidly reshaping the U.S. economy. These forces have improved the potential of some individuals to thrive, but diminished prospects for others striving to reach or maintain their place in the American middle class. Amid these changes, how and where will individuals find durable sources of good jobs?
Certainly, education is an important part of the picture, particularly for enabling upward mobility among young people. But tens of millions of adults who are already a critical part of the American workforce also deserve a chance to obtain better jobs, with higher pay and benefits.
This report shows that the industrial structure and growth of metropolitan economies—in particular, whether they provide sufficient numbers of jobs in opportunity industries—matters greatly for workers’ ability to get ahead economically. It examines the presence of occupations and industries in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas that either currently or over time provide workers access to stable middle-class wages and benefits, particularly for the 38 million prime-age workers without a bachelor’s degree.
Many good jobs that promote upward mobility are found in opportunity industries
Because industries organize work around different sets of occupations and skills, they provide varying levels of good and promising jobs. Opportunity industries are those in which good jobs represent an above-average share of the industry’s total jobs.
Tradable industries—those in which firms sell most of their products or services to customers outside the region—contain only about 29 percent of all jobs, but account for 38 percent of good jobs held by workers without a bachelor’s degree. Manufacturing, logistics, and wholesale trade provide especially high concentrations of good jobs, and near-average shares of promising jobs, for these workers. Local-serving industries such as hospitality, retail, and administrative services provide relatively fewer good jobs for workers without a bachelor’s degree, but account for 71 percent of promising jobs held by these workers.
Workers with a bachelor’s degree, on the other hand, tend to find good and promising jobs across a wide range of industries, including tradable industries such as computer systems design, engineering services, and scientific research, and local-serving industries such as health care and education.
What are the opportunity industries in each metro area?
Note: Not all bars sum to 100%. These are indicated by undefined segments above
Opportunities to obtain a good job depend on metro characteristics
The nation’s 100 largest metro areas vary considerably in the share of their jobs that are good or promising, and in the educational attainment of the workers who hold those jobs. For instance, good or promising jobs held by workers without a bachelor’s degree represent 35 percent of jobs in the Spokane, Wash. metro area, but just 9 percent of jobs in the Washington, D.C. metro area. These differences across metro areas reflect differences in: (a) the educational attainment of local workers; (b) the presence of opportunity industries in local economies; and (c) the company specializations, skill requirements, and pay levels in those local opportunity industries.
Strategies to improve opportunity in metropolitan America
Nearly all metropolitan areas do not provide enough good and promising jobs for all the workers who need those opportunities. Yet metro labor markets are dynamic, with many workers switching occupations and industries in order to get ahead. This report identifies three strategies for leaders in cities and regions to enable workers’ mobility to better jobs and the middle class:
- Refocus economic development on opportunity industries. Too often, scarce public resources are spent on incentivizing job growth or retention in industries that provide too little opportunity. Economic development should instead increase the share of good jobs in the local economy. Such jobs not only broaden access to opportunity, but industries that concentrate good jobs also tend to have a greater positive impact on the local economy.
- Partner between government and business to improve job quality. A growing body of research shows that improving job quality—by treating labor as an asset rather than a cost—is good for the bottom line in some sectors that provide many “other” jobs, including retail, hospitality, health care, and education. Improving job quality means not only increasing wages and benefits, but also improving the visibility of pathways from low-quality jobs to better ones.
- Retool education and workforce development for a dynamic labor market. The constant emergence of new technologies means workers may need to switch careers more often to access opportunity. Specific knowledge and skills remain essential to getting a job, but keeping that job or finding a better one may require workers and institutions to focus more on developing abstract cognitive abilities that enable people to think and learn by themselves, and to adapt to continuous change in the labor market.
Interactive by Alec Friedhoff
Report Produced by Brookings Metro