Metros Should Focus on Attracting and Upskilling Workers in ‘Opportunity Industries’


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There’s a difference between a good job, a promising job and other jobs, particularly for people without bachelor’s degrees, according to a recent Brookings report.

A worker’s economic success over a career depends in large part on a metropolitan area’s ability to provide sufficient jobs in “opportunity industries,” with Spokane, Washington offering the highest share in the nation in 2017, according to a recent Brookings Institution report.

Brookings defines opportunity industries as ones providing workers with stable middle-class wages and benefits—particularly for the 38 million prime-age workers in the U.S. without a bachelor’s degree.

While “good jobs” provide both, according to the report, “promising jobs” are entry-level positions leading to good jobs within 10 years.

“A complex set of factors is influencing which cities are increasing opportunity,” Chad Shearer, report co-author and senior research associate at Brookings, told Route Fifty. “Some of it is certainly policy, but a lot of it is the historical nature of their economy.”

The metropolitan areas of Seattle; Nashville, Tennessee; and Austin, Texas are relatively affordable and boast a range of good and promising, high-skilled jobs in software and computer systems design. But Shearer said those areas were also notable because they had jobs for workers without bachelor degrees in those occupations and others like construction and hospitality.

Among the 100 largest metros, Spokane had a 35 percent share of good and promising jobs held by sub-baccalaureate workers, compared to the national average of 21 percent. Meanwhile, Washington, D.C. had the lowest share of good and promising jobs held by workers without a bachelor’s or higher degree. In the District, 9 percent of those jobs were held by people with less education than a bachelor’s.

That’s not to say Spokane has it all figured out, according to the report:

“No large U.S. metropolitan area provides sufficient high-quality labor market opportunities for all the people who need them, especially workers without a bachelor’s degree. Even in Spokane, with the highest share of good and promising jobs for sub-baccalaureate workers, only half of its sub-baccalaureate workers hold one. Metro areas can begin to close these gaps by addressing factors that influence local labor market opportunity, such as industrial composition, workforce characteristics, wage levels, and growth dynamics.” 

Maintenance, construction, production and transportation occupations offer the most good and promising positions for sub-baccalaureate workers, while administrative, sales, food-service and personal care occupations offer promising jobs but few good ones.

Occupation pathways vary by metro, with the bulk of Spokane’s good and promising jobs for workers without a bachelor’s degree, 8.9 percent, in industrial production work followed by administrative and construction occupations. The mining industry had the highest share of good jobs, 69.4 percent, for people without bachelor’s degrees.

Most of D.C.’s good and promising jobs for the same group of workers were in protective security, management or computer occupations. The industry with the most promising jobs, 8.1 percent, was actually agriculture.

The amount of funding cities and states dedicate to economic development varies, but metro and regional economic development agencies should refocus on opportunity industries, Shearer said. Too often governments subsidize operations like Amazon warehousing and logistics centers.

“While these facilities certainly provide lots of jobs, very few of them are good jobs,” Shearer said. “Job quality is a primary goal.”

Differences in economic opportunities between metros are explained by the educational attainment of the local workforce, presence of opportunity industries and pay, according to the report.

State and local officials must understand that very few people in today’s dynamic labor market follow a linear career path, instead switching occupations quite a bit over a decade, Shearer said. Jumping jobs or even industries requires acquiring different skills without returning to school.

“Workforce development and higher education should provide training that prepares people for lifelong learning, like problem solving,” Shearer said. “That way they can navigate the job market in a more self-directed way.”

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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