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No degree? Fed’s study says Chicago is a tough place to work

A report from the Federal Reserve found the Chicago area ranked 101st in its overall share of what are called "opportunity jobs." | Sun-Times file photo

For adults without a college degree, Chicago might not be the ideal place to find a good-paying job and put down roots.

A report from the Federal Reserve suggests they should think instead of Toledo, Ohio; Des Moines, Iowa, or St. Louis. They’d be advised to stay clear of New York, Washington, D.C., or most of southern California.

Three researchers at the Fed have analyzed trends in what they call “opportunity occupations,” which pay wages higher than a metro area’s median but don’t require a bachelor’s degree.

Using data from 121 metropolitan areas covering about three-quarters of all U.S. employment, the researchers found the Chicago area ranked poorly — 101st — in its overall share of opportunity jobs.

The 14-county Chicago region, running from southeast Wisconsin through Northwest Indiana, had 19.3% of its total jobs classed as opportunity employment. Metro areas that fared best in the study had opportunity employment shares of 29% to 34%.

Chicago and other low-ranking metros generally exhibit higher costs of living, said Lisa Nelson, community development research manager at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland and one of the study’s three authors. The others were Kyle Fee, senior policy analyst at the Cleveland Fed, and Keith Wardrip, community development research manager at the Philadelphia Fed.

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Nelson said other factors in the rankings were the industry mix in a given region and employer expectations for the backgrounds of job applicants. She said that in Chicago and other areas with plenty of college graduates, there’s evidence that employers make that a prerequisite for jobs that don’t need it.

“Our concern about what’s happening to the middle class was really the impetus for this,” she said. “Sixty-eight percent of the adult population doesn’t have a four-year degree. We wanted to know more about their prospects.”

To be sure, the Chicago region has a much greater number of jobs at all levels than most other markets, but there’s also strong competition for every opening. The Fed report found that in the Chicago area, there are 3.5 people aged 25-64 without a baccalaureate for every job that doesn’t need one.

In other metros that ranked higher in the Fed’s analysis, the ratio is around 2-to-1.

Nelson said city policymakers should support job training programs for high school graduates and affordable housing. She also said employers can help by increasing in-house training, as many supervisory jobs don’t require a degree.

“The future looks particularly favorable for several occupations in health care and the skilled trades,” the report said, “but less so for some occupations in office and administrative support.”

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The researchers cited Bureau of Labor Statistics projections to list the no-degree jobs with the greatest chances for growth and decline. The data show the largest estimated growth through 2026 as going to plumbers and pipefitters, registered nurses, heating and air conditioning specialists and construction workers. Jobs likely to decline, often because of automation, include administrative assistants and bookkeeping clerks.

Nelson said the annual median wage in the Chicago-Naperville-Elgin statistical area is $39,122, higher than the U.S. median of $37,690.