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It’s not about more associate degrees; It’s about the right associate degrees

While there may be a national excess in total associate degrees, specific regional worker shortages remain.

The Wall Street Journal recently published an editorial by economists William A. Kelly Jr. and Elizabeth Sawyer Kelly that critiques President Obama's free community college plan, which would provide two years of tuition-free community college to students who meet specific criteria. They cite Census Bureau reports that 28 percent of the workforce already has an associate degree or some college and BLS projections that only 17 percent of new jobs through 2022 will require this level of degree, suggesting that this is hardly the time to concern ourselves with producing more college-trained workers. But associate degrees aren't all the same, and neither are all regional economies. While there may be a national excess in total associate degrees, specific regional worker shortages (also known as skills gaps) remain.

The fact is, students need to learn skills that are in demand in their local workforce. Community colleges have long since known that skilled worker surpluses and shortages must be assessed on a region-by-region and occupation-by-occupation basis, which is why they are uniquely suited to respond to local business needs and improve their regional economies. This is also why so many colleges partner with EMSI in their efforts to understand how regional labor market data can drive student success.

To demonstrate how opportunities vary from region to region—and why labor market data is an essential consideration for students, educators and policy-makers—we selected two distinct metros to analyze, both of which are highly ranked by our Labor Market 150 Index. Of course, there are certain occupations that seem to be growing everywhere, such as registered nurses and truck drivers. But are there well-paying occupations experiencing regional worker shortages that can be attained with less than a bachelor's degree? What regional surpluses, if any, exist?

In order to identify these needs and excesses, we considered only the occupations that are projected to have at least 1,000 regional jobs by 2018, and evaluated them based on several indicators, including projected growth over the next five years, median hourly wage, regional completions from local postsecondary institutions, and 2014-2018 estimated annual openings.


Both shortages and surpluses often occur in driver industries—industries that play a key role in the economic vitality of a region by supplying quality, often high-paying jobs while also supporting job growth in other industries. This is certainly true in Houston. Each of the occupations with worker shortages stem from industries that are large and growing larger. Using EMSI's inverse staffing patterns, our analysis matched the affected occupations with the industries that employ them.

Worker shortages in Houston

Since the Houston area is well known for its role in oil and gas extraction and production, two of the five occupations we identified are linked to driver industries. Geological and petroleum technicians are most often employed in the crude petroleum and natural gas extraction industry, which contained over 61,000 jobs in the Houston area in 2014 and is expected to grow 13 percent by 2018. Similarly, first-line supervisors of production and operating workers most often work in the oil and gas field machinery and equipment manufacturing industry, which contained more than 42,000 jobs in 2014.

Computer user support specialists are most often employed by the metro's largest industry (elementary schools and secondary schools). Police and sheriff's patrol officers (local government) and medical and clinical laboratory technicians (general medical and surgical hospitals) are employed by the fourth- and fifth-largest industries, respectively.

Worker surpluses in Houston

Houston's saturated occupations also have close ties to the region's driver industries. These occupations are often closely connected to either government, oil and gas, manufacturing or health care industries—all of which are driving the Houston economy.


The working population of Raleigh, North Carolina, is only about one-fifth the size of Houston's labor market, but the area has nonetheless made a name for itself as a tech center.

Interestingly enough, Raleigh's tech focus is more apparent in occupations with surpluses than in occupations that need more trained workers—at least at the associate-degree or some-college level. There are more than four regional completions for each estimated yearly opening as a computer network support specialist, which suggests that students who complete those programs are either moving away from Raleigh upon graduation, commuting out of the area for work or taking jobs that aren't directly related to their degrees. Similarly, there is a surplus of computer user support specialists, although the difference between completions and annual openings isn't as drastic.

A number of growing occupations that require less than a bachelor's degree in Raleigh are in need of qualified workers. Dental hygienists earn $33.73 per hour, and there are only 11 regional completions for 269 annual openings. Dental assistants are also in demand, with 41 completions for 344 openings. Other local occupations with worker shortages include paralegals and legal assistants and heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers.

Worker Shortages in Raleigh

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