In Search of Opportunity: The Importance of ‘Good’ and ‘Promising’ Jobs

A Brookings Institution report highlights the importance of “opportunity industries” in regional economies as the best chance for workers, especially those without bachelor’s degrees, to obtain stable, middle-class employment. The key, according to the report, is the ability of a region to generate jobs that are deemed either “good” or “promising.”

Opportunity Industries: Exploring the industries that concentrate good and promising jobs in metropolitan America was based on research by authors Chad Shearer and Isha Shah, who examined occupations and industries in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas, including West Michigan. They focused on employment opportunities that provide access, either currently or over time, to middle-class wages and benefits. The emphasis was on prime-age workers without bachelor’s degrees, but they also identified good and promising jobs for workers with degrees.

The authors define a good job as stable employment paying median annual wages with employer-sponsored benefits for full-time workers. Promising jobs, on the other hand, are defined as entry-level positions on a career pathway to a good job within 10 years. Using this understanding, Shearer and Shah write, career paths often become “lattices” rather than “ladders” as workers gain skills and move into new industries to secure good jobs. 


Where the opportunities are

What industries in West Michigan concentrate good and promising jobs? The Brookings report, which breaks down data on each of the 100 regions, identifies the top five industries for people without bachelor’s degrees in the Grand Rapids-Wyoming Metro Area as utilities, mining, construction, logistics, and manufacturing. Good and promising occupations for those with a bachelor’s degree include corporate headquarters, professions, government, finance and education.

The study found metropolitan areas with high shares of good and promising jobs often had affordable costs of living and a diverse base of “tradable industries” – those that generate wealth by selling most of their products and services outside the region. Examples include manufacturing, higher education, and freight services.

Conversely, industries such as retail, food service, and basic healthcare, which are more likely to target consumers within a region, typically had a lower share of good and promising jobs.


Prevalence and relevance of post-secondary credentialing

In another perspective on career opportunity, a study from the American Enterprise Institute examines the prevalence and relevance of nondegree credentials and work-experience programs in post-secondary attainment. It found that 32% of working-class adults who reported income had a certificate, certification, or professional license.

It is often assumed that working-class individuals are more likely to have pursued nondegree education or work-based learning experiences in lieu of an associate- or bachelor-level degree. This isn’t quite the case. The study finds that the most highly educated Americans hold a higher rate of nondegree credentials and work-based learning experiences as an addition to their degree or experiences available to them for professional development.

The American Enterprise Institute study also found that not all credentialing leads to pay increases. This emphasizes that it is important to determine the relevance of the credential or work-based learning being offered or pursued. 

And yet, lower- and middle-class workers have more to gain from relevant postsecondary credentialing and work-based learning. So how can access be improved for this group?

A few approaches offer promise. In one, community colleges and employers have developed apprenticeship programs and industry certifications within degree programs. Employers, meanwhile, are increasing in-house training opportunities for entry-level employees. The report authors also suggest federal policymakers take steps to increase financial aid for nondegree programs that have met quality assurance measures.  


Industry is a factor in workforce development

Similarly, policymakers have a role in encouraging opportunity industries and availability of good and promising jobs. Opportunity Zone planning can support the strategic selection of investments from industries that provide these jobs. And workforce and economic development leaders can consider policies to promote opportunity industries with good and promising jobs in their area.

The Brookings report makes three recommendations:

1) Refocus economic development on opportunity industries. 2) Partner between government and business to improve job quality. 3) Retool education and workforce development for a dynamic labor market.

These recommendations are centered on increasing economic mobility – and they offer potential to be intermixed with investment plans in Opportunity Zones throughout West Michigan.

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