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The South Leads in Job Growth, But Low-Skill Work Dominates

By guest blogger Ellen Wexler

The South is about a decade behind the rest of the country in the kinds of high-skill, high-wage jobs that require education beyond high school, which, despite relatively strong job growth in the region, could keep it stuck in an economic rut, according to a new study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. While some 60 percent of all U.S. jobs required postsecondary education or training in 2010, the South will not reach this proportion until 2020, concludes the study, "A Decade Behind: Breaking Out of the Low-Skill Trap in the Southern Economy." It details why the southern states—with the exception of Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and the District of Columbia—are so far behind the national averages in high-wage and high-skill jobs. Here are some of the study's findings:

  • Today, approximately 54 percent of jobs in the South require postsecondary training, compared to 59 percent in the nation as a whole;

  • In 2020, 66 percent of U.S. jobs will require postsecondary education and training;

  • Washington, D.C. (76 percent), Virginia (68 percent), and Maryland (66 percent) will beat the 2020 national average; All of the other 14 southern states will be below this number;

  • Mississippi, Arkansas, and West Virginia will be tied at 51 percent for the least number of jobs requiring postsecondary education among southern states in 2020;

  • The number of jobs in southern states is predicted to grow by 20 percent from 2010 to 2020, compared to a projected national growth rate of 17 percent.

This last number indicates that the South is actually creating jobs faster than the nation as a whole. However, according to the report's executive summary, "The issue is what kinds of jobs will be created; they will tend to be lower-skilled, lower-pay positions that follow the industrial profiles of the various states."

The combination of low-paid, low-skill jobs, and a large number of residents without postsecondary education leads to the phenomenon known as brain drain, the report explains, when educated students leave their home state to seek employment. This is especially difficult for states to deal with, because they need to focus both on improving state education and on creating high-paying, high-skill jobs - improving one without the other will only exacerbate the problem.

On one hand, if a state creates more high-skilled jobs without focusing on education, many of those jobs will go to applicants from other states. If, however, a state focuses on education without making an effort to create high-skill jobs, "there is little incentive for those with the opportunity to go elsewhere to stay in their home state," the report explains. "And frankly, why should they?"

The report concludes that part of the problem has to do with the South's industrial makeup. Many of the region's prominent industries are traditionally low-paid and low-skill such as old-line manufacturing, construction, and natural resources. As a result, workers will not have to pursue postsecondary education to get these jobs, and employers will not create as many high-skill jobs in areas where so many residents have not pursued postsecondary education.

"This, of course, is no way to compete in a global economy that increasingly emphasizes competition based on knowledge and skill," the executive summary explains. "And yet, it is the situation confronting much of the South."

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