Melissa Johnson, a former senior policy analyst at the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, is a state policy director at the National Skills Coalition. She is based in Atlanta.
In this guest column, Johnson discusses the need for more workers to fill middle-skills jobs, which she defines as jobs that need more than a high school degree but less than a four-year college degree. She says increasing financial aid options for Georgians seeking associate’s degrees would help.
By Melissa Johnson
It's easy to look at our state's economic metrics – monthly unemployment rates are the lowest since 2001 – and conclude that our economy is strong. But the reality is that Georgia has a "skills gap" that threatens our state's economic competitiveness now and in the future.
Middle-skills jobs – which require more than a high school degree but less than a four-year college degree – make up 55 percent of Georgia's labor market. But only 43 percent of Georgia workers are trained at this level. And who are these middle-skill workers?
They’re the construction workers who build and repair our homes, roads, and bridges. The health-care technicians who care for us and our families when we get sick. The air traffic controllers, electricians, and mechanics who keep our infrastructure up and running. They’re the police officers and firefighters who keep us safe.
In short, they’re hard-working Americans who deserve better access and more financial support to get the education and training they need to succeed in their careers.
Expanding financial aid opportunities for workers seeking associate’s degrees is a key step toward closing that skills gap and supporting these workers.
Why are associate’s degree graduates so important? Because Georgia just isn’t producing nearly enough of them to meet employer demand. Between July 2016 and June 2017, we had about 19,000 associate’s degree holders, compared to the nearly 34,000 job postings that required an associate’s degree.
In the 2015-2016 school year, specifically, Georgia employers needed about 27,500 associate's degree graduates in health professions but there were less than 4,700 graduates in that field. That same year employers also needed nearly 11,500 associate's degree graduates in business, management, marketing and related support services. But we had only about 2,500 graduates in that field.
Part of the reason is because many students don't have the financial means to complete these programs. Georgia families spend, on average, nearly 13 percent of their annual income to cover educational expenses at a technical college.
This is exactly why we must expand financial aid for these students. And there are two key steps that lawmakers can take to achieve that goal.
First, we should extend the eligibility requirement for the HOPE Scholarship beyond seven years post high school. More than two in five of Georgia's associate's degree students are older than 25, making them likely ineligible for the scholarship. Removing the seven-year time limit by making all in-state associate's degree students over the age of 25 eligible for HOPE would go a long way toward helping about 25,000 students complete their degree.
Second, lawmakers should expand HOPE Career Grants to include associate's degrees. Georgia established the HOPE Career Grants to provide additional support to students pursuing technical certificates and diplomas in high-demand fields. However, associate's degree students who are enrolled in the specific fields laid out by the grant now don't qualify for it.
Expanding opportunity for these associate's degree workers who are already enrolled in HOPE Career Grant fields will help employers recruit and retain top talent. Research shows that expanding HOPE Career Grants to include associate's degrees in high-demand fields can help about 7,000 technical college students. In the university system, this change can support up to 14,000 students.
Beyond the benefits to employers, investing in these workers also helps them secure good-paying jobs.
Median earnings for associate's degree graduates in health degree professions five years after graduation isn80 percent higher, or $19,172 more per year, than for graduates with technical certificates. In computer and information science, earnings are 32 percent higher, or $8,435 more.
Moreover, among workers without a bachelor's degree, Georgia workers with associate's degrees have experienced the largest gains in "good jobs" since 1991, which the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce defines as $35,000 per year for workers under age 45, and $45,000 per year for workers age 45 and older.
It’s clear that providing financial aid is a “win-win” for workers and employers.
The good news is that our state leaders recognize the need to have more workers with education and training beyond high school. Gov. Nathan Deal embraced the goal that 60 percent of Georgia's jobs will require some level of postsecondary education by 2025. To meet that target, we need an additional 189,000 workers with some college education, an associate's degree, or a certificate.
Expanding financial aid for associate’s degree students is a good place to start.
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