Workforce by the Numbers: Back to school offers best bang for your buck

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Workforce by the Numbers: Back to school offers best bang for your buck

Charlotte Works is pleased to continue Workforce By The Numbers, spotlighting workforce research from around the region. Data and analysis are provided through our partnership with the Charlotte Chamber.

Everyone has heard the saying, “The more you learn the more you earn.” But increased tuition and a sluggish economy have many graduates questioning the value of their degrees.

Recently, President Barack Obama announced a free community college plan that would provide two years of tuition-free community college to students who meet specific criteria.

The Census Bureau reports that 28 percent of the workforce already has an associate’s degree or some college, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that only 17 percent of the new jobs through 2022 will require this level of degree. Both statistics suggest that it’s hardly the time to concern ourselves with producing more college-trained workers. However, associate’s degrees are not all the same; nor are all regional economies.

First, let’s look at the level of educational attainment in our region when compared to the state of North Carolina and the rest of the United States. Thirty-eight percent of the labor force has an associate’s degree or higher, slightly higher than both.

Educational Attainment Charit











The following table examines median hourly and annual earnings by educational attainment. We clearly see a divergence occur once an individual attains an associate’s degree: she earns 26 percent more than the regional median earnings and 38 percent more than an individual with a high school diploma, realizing an additional $14,820 a year in purchasing power.

Earnings by Educational Attainment

While we established the value of education in the previous table, a degree does little good if there are no opportunities to use that knowledge. From 2009 to 2014, the region grew by 11.9 percent, adding 138,375 jobs.

Of those, the fastest growth occurred in occupations for which the typical entry level of educational attainment was certifications; when combined with associate’s degrees, they grew by a combined 23 percent.

Employment Growth by Typical Entry Level Educational Attainment

More than 43,000 of the jobs added during this period required at least some college, reinforcing the importance of education in the job market.

To identify key opportunities for individuals with an associate’s degree, we used the following criteria:

  • the job-holder must make more than the median regional hourly wage,
  • there must be more than 1,000 total jobs in the occupation,
  • the occupation must have experienced growth over the last five years and
  • the occupation must have more than 200 annual openings.

Registered nurses account for nearly half of the jobs requiring an associate’s degree. Web developers experienced the fastest growth at 35 percent, while earning $26.98 per hour. Dental hygienists were the highest-paid occupation meeting our criteria at $33.85 per hour.

Key Occupations - Associate's Degree

Certificates provide a clear career pathway with relatively low barriers to entry. Using the same criteria as above, we identified the key occupations requiring a specialized certification.

In terms of total number of jobs and openings, truck drivers were, by far, the largest group in this category, with more than 18,000 jobs and 11 percent growth. Aircraft mechanic is a stand-out occupation in this group, with growth of 58 percent and pay well above the regional median.

Key Occupations - Certificte

The data cannot be disputed: education is a sound investment that not only creates new opportunities, but also has a direct impact on earnings. Over the course of a career, the cumulative results are hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional earnings. Indeed, college and higher education pays off for most people.



Paul Hendershot - Article

Paul E. Hendershot serves as director of research at the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce. Prior to joining the Charlotte Chamber team, he worked as manager of business development in the commercial real estate department at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) and spent four years as the research director at the Dallas Regional Chamber. During his tenure with the Chamber, Hendershot completed more than 100 unique economic development projects including Comerica, AT&T, Gulfstream, Arbitron, Capital One and Research in Motion. He is also founder and chief economist of Hendershot Economics, where he defined the life sciences industry for BIOCOM, among other projects in the Greater San Diego region.


Data included in this article is inclusive of North Carolina’s Southwest Region Prosperity Zone, which includes Anson, Cabarrus, Cleveland, Gaston, Iredell, Lincoln, Mecklenburg, Rowan, Stanly and Union counties.

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