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Published: Dec 10, 2019 4 min read
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The toolbox on the factory floor has shifted from carrying wrenches to computer codes — and manufacturing jobs are increasingly going to workers with postsecondary degrees.

More than 40% of manufacturing workers have a college degree today, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of workforce data. That’s up from 22% in 1991. If growth continues at the same pace, college-educated manufacturing workers will overtake the number of workers with a high school degree or less within the next few years, the Journal found.

Why are more factory jobs going to workers with college degrees? Thanks to technological advances, including machine automation, most new manufacturing jobs today require learning how to operate specialized machines. This shift has helped U.S. manufacturers increase output, according to the Journal, even as their workforce has shrunk from a peak of nearly 20 million four decades ago.

To be clear, manufacturers aren't necessarily requiring four-year degrees. But more companies are offering what the National Skills Coalition calls "middle-skills careers," or jobs that require education that falls between a high school diploma and a bachelor's degree.

Still, the elimination of traditional blue-collar factory jobs has led to the much-discussed "skills gap." Manufacturing company leaders have been lamenting such a gap for the better part of a decade. A recent report from consulting firm Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute predicts the number of unfilled manufacturing jobs could grow from about 500,000 to more than 2 million by 2028. Others, though, have disputed that there’s a true skills gap. In 2016, professors at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign and Massachusetts Institute of Technology surveyed manufacturing firms and found that about 75% of them had no trouble filling their vacant roles. And among those that did have long-term vacancies, demand for reading and math skills was common, but demand for computer skills wants not a critical need.

Regardless of whether the industry is plagued by a skills gap, there’s no doubt — based on the Journal's article and previous reports on the topic — that new hires typically are required to have more education than in the past.

In that sense, manufacturing aligns with the broader story of the U.S. labor market. Research from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce on labor market shifts found the share of decent-paying jobs held by workers without a bachelor’s degree has declined from 60% of the job market in 1991 to 45% in 2015. Nearly all of those new jobs that do not require a bachelor's degree still went to workers with some college education. In fact, since the Great Recession the number of good jobs filled by workers with associate's degrees grew by 83%.

That’s not to say there aren’t any quality jobs available for those without a four-year college degree. (Here’s a list of the top-paying jobs for associate's degree holders and for those with a high school diploma.) But these jobs, especially the ones that only require a high school diploma, are limited and are often clustered in specific geographical areas. They are also less resilient to changes in the economy. During the Great Recession, for example, the unemployment rate for bachelor's degree holders never climbed above 5%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s compared with a peak above 10% for workers with only a high school diploma.