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Study: Wisconsin lost 13,000 'good jobs' for non-college grads since 1991

Good-paying blue collar jobs, like those held by General Motors workers in Janesville before the plant stopped production in 2008, have declined in Wisconsin since 1991, though good-paying skilled service jobs have made up for many of those losses.

Wisconsin has lost 13,000 “good jobs” held by non-college graduates over the last quarter-century, though it has fared better than some of its Rust Belt neighbors, according to a new Georgetown University study.

That’s because while good-paying manufacturing jobs that have historically been available to high school graduates declined, they have been largely replaced by good-paying skilled-services jobs that also don’t require a bachelor’s degree in areas such as financial services and health care.

While good jobs in the state are still available to those without a bachelor’s degree, many more are going to people with an associate’s degree. The share increased from 11.2 percent in 1991 to 31.1 percent, the third-largest increase in the country.

“Increasingly, good jobs are held by people with some level of post-secondary level of training,” said Neil Ridley, one of the study’s authors and director of the state initiative at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “Wisconsin was one of the states where that shift toward associate’s degree was one of the biggest shifts.”

The study comes as Wisconsin grapples with a growing worker shortage and welcomes Taiwanese manufacturer Foxconn and as many as 13,000 jobs to Racine County over the next few years.

The Georgetown study defined “good jobs” as those paying at least $35,000 per year to workers under 45 and $45,000 to workers older than 45. The study compared 2015 with 1991 in inflation-adjusted dollars and focused on workers ages 25 to 64.

Wisconsin lost 13,000 good jobs held by those without a bachelor’s degree between 1991 and 2015, a 2 percent decline, though that includes 56,000 fewer blue-collar jobs and 44,000 more skilled-service jobs.

Wisconsin was one of 16 states with a net decline. Among Midwestern states, it was right in the middle with Michigan, Ohio and Illinois with far bigger net losses and Minnesota, Iowa and Indiana with net gains.

Nationally, the country added 2.7 million good-paying jobs held by those without a bachelor’s degree, including 4 million in skilled-service jobs, but a 1.3 million loss of blue-collar jobs.

About four in 10 workers without a bachelor’s degree held a good job in 2015, a slight decline from 1991. Wisconsin was one of 14 states in which the share of non-college graduates holding “good jobs” declined.

Wisconsin’s economy has continued to improve since 2015, including additional wage growth, so the study misses some of those more recent gains, said John Koskinen, chief economist for the Wisconsin Department of Revenue.

He added that the increase in skilled-service good jobs shows that Wisconsinites have been flexible in shifting from one type of industry to another as manufacturing has declined, though he noted manufacturing remains a major employer in the state.

“Over this time frame there were a lot of those changes going on, it speaks to the ability of people to adapt to circumstances,” Koskinen said.

In 2015, 53 percent of good-paying jobs in Wisconsin were held by those without a bachelor’s degree, down from 64 percent in 1991. But Wisconsin’s rank improved on that measure from 13th highest to 10th highest as other states experienced steeper declines.

Nationally, 45 percent of good-paying jobs were held by those without a bachelor’s degree in 2015, down from 60 percent in 1991.

One factor that could explain the shift in Wisconsin is the increasing number of those with a bachelor’s degree, said Noah Williams, a conservative UW-Madison economist. He noted the population with at least a bachelor’s degree grew from 18 percent to 28 percent over the study period.

“Even though there has been a decline in non-BA ‘good jobs’ in the state, workers without BAs still make up a larger share of the total good jobs here than nationwide,” Williams said. “Much of that is likely due to the higher concentration in manufacturing.”

Jon Peacock, research director for liberal-leaning Kids Forward, highlighted how Wisconsin ranked 37th in the growth of good-paying skilled-service jobs for people without college degrees. Nationally, the growth in those jobs was more than three times the size of the drop in blue-collar good jobs held by those without a college degree.

“I think state policymakers should take a hard look at that statistic and seriously consider … what the state could do to accelerate growth in that sector,” Peacock said.

Non-college grads lose ground on 'good jobs'