Boston Job Market Rewards Degrees, Punishes Dropouts

Boston’s labor market is a land of extremes, with a younger and more highly educated workforce than the rest of the state but also with a larger percentage of high school dropouts and unemployed young people.

A report out Monday by the state and the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston provides a detailed description of the labor market in Suffolk County (Boston, Chelsea, Revere, and Winthrop) and most of Middlesex County (of which Cambridge is a part). It reveals a region with pronounced strengths and weaknesses, where industries have more employees with a college degree than anywhere else in Massachusetts while workers with a high school education or less struggle to find work.

"The Boston economy is one of the best places in America for college degree holders and one of the worst for high school dropouts," said Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, which helps oversee employment and training programs for the state. "The Greater Boston economy rewards degrees and punishes those ­without."

While nearly half of workers in the area had a bachelor’s degree or higher, labor specialists said they were concerned that some 15 percent did not finish high school.

Despite this disparity, the Boston area still had one of the lowest unemployment rates in Massachusetts: 6.4 percent in 2011, compared with the statewide rate of 7.3 percent and the US rate of 8.9 percent. Only one region, southwest of Boston, had a lower unemployment rate last year.

The labor market report is part of a joint project by the Commonwealth Corporation, the state’s quasi-public workforce development agency, and the Boston Fed’s New England Public Policy Center to provide in-depth analysis of the eight regional markets in Massachusetts. The Boston-area study is the third in a series and details the demographics, education, and employment of workers in 21 communities. The project expects to publish a statewide report in February.

One edge the Boston area has is its youth, with 46 percent of workers under age 35, versus 33 percent in Massachusetts and 36 percent nationwide.

"Boston, unlike the rest of the state, really has an advantage around having this cadre of young workers who can move into jobs as baby boomers leave," said Nancy Snyder, chief executive of the Commonwealth Corporation.

But many young workers can’t find jobs; nearly 30 percent of the unemployed in the area are under 25, more so than across Massachusetts and the United States. This high level of joblessness could cause young people to leave the area, jobs experts say.

Jahlil Drewery, 20, graduated from Brookline High School, completed an internship in information technology, and is taking classes at Bunker Hill Community College. He applied for about 15 retail sales jobs over the summer, but when employers found out he didn’t have a degree, Drewery said, he never heard from them again.

Job seekers like Drewery are getting squeezed out of this competitive job market as unemployed people with degrees and work experience took ­entry-level jobs during the ­recession, said Conny Doty, ­director of the Mayor’s Office of Jobs and Community Services, Boston’s workforce development agency. "Nobody got more roughed up in the Great Recession than young people, and it was merciless to those without education," she said.

Even industries such as manufacturing that traditionally employ less-educated workers are increasingly degree-driven. Nearly half of employees at manufacturing companies have a bachelor’s or higher, according to the report; in health care and social assistance, the biggest industry in the Boston area, 56 percent of employees have at least a four-year degree.

"At the same time that we have this very highly educated workforce, we have a lot of folks who just don’t have the education and skill levels to access the jobs that would support them and their families," said Yolanda Kodrzycki, director of the New England Public Policy Center. "And so one of our key focuses has to be on making sure that the kids in high school complete high school, and that there are pathways for them to get further education and training."

But the number of students earning two-year degrees in the area is shrinking, according to the report, with 25 percent fewer associate’s degree holders among 25-to-34-year-olds than among middle-age workers, creating a potential shortage of middle-skilled workers such as medical technicians and teaching assistants as baby boomers retire.

Local workforce leaders are working to remedy these issues — partnering with community colleges to create more flexible programs and enlisting nonprofits to help local students enroll in college; Boston, for example, is pushing high school dropouts to go back to school or take supervised online courses to earn their diploma.

Another tack: better marketing of the kinds of jobs available. Manufacturing, for instance, has an outdated image, said Linda Bass, executive director of the Metro North Regional Employment Board.

"Right now, people can go into advanced manufacturing and make a lot of money, wages in the $90,000 range that require a high level of skills," she said. "And it’s more accessible to people who don’t necessarily have a college degree."


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