Wages falling for most US workers without college degrees

Pay increasing for those with higher education

American wages are rising—for college grads, writes Neil Irwin for New York Times' "The Upshot."

Researchers from the Brookings Institution's Hamilton Project reviewed U.S. Census Bureau data from 1990 to 2013 on adults ages 20 to 45 who worked 750 hours a year, and found that U.S. workers without a college degree are facing falling wages.

But for those with some form of higher education, median earnings—adjusted for inflation—are on the upswing.

Men's median wages jumped by:

  • 7% for those with a bachelor's degree, from $63,100 to $67,200; and
  • 13% for those with an advanced degree, from $76,800 to $86,600.

Women's median wages grew by:

  • 16% for those with a bachelor's degree, from $41,400 to $47,900;
  • 21% for those with an advanced degree, from $50,400 to $61,000; and
  • 3% for those with a high school diploma or some college.

Study: More education equals more wage growth

But for men and women with just a high school diploma, earnings fell by 13% and 12%, respectively, and men without a high school diploma have seen their median earnings fall by 20%.

The data reflect two shifts in the U.S. labor force, writes Irwin: fewer manufacturing jobs and pressure to limit labor costs. "The jobs that are being created for less-educated workers really do pay less than the ones that are being lost," he says.

In 1990, 40% of male workers ages 20 to 45 were operators and laborers, compared with 34% in 2013, when compensation for the professions averaged $25,500. Over the same time period, cleaning, grounds keeping, and food service jobs jumped from 11% to 21%; those positions paid $20,400 in 2013.

As less-educated Americans moved from higher to lower paying sectors, pay levels also fell across the board when adjusted for inflation. In 1990, 31% of men without a high school diploma had manufacturing jobs, where they earned $33,600. By 2013, that rate was down to 29%, and the position earned just $28,000.

Irwin notes this may be because as manufacturing jobs disappear due to automation and globalization, more people are competing for service jobs "and the additional supply is helping to depress wages" (Irwin, "The Upshot," New York Times, 4/21).

The takeaway: New research from the Brookings Institution finds wages for most workers without higher education degrees are falling—but wages of college grads are rising.

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