A line Oct. 12 at a job fair in Fayetteville, N.C. (Fayetteville Observer)
McLean, VA (written by Paul Davidson/USA Today) -- These days, there may be something more valuable to job seekers than a four-year college degree: a two-year college degree.
Employment for Americans with an associate's degree or some college has increased by 578,000 the past six months to 35.2 million, while payrolls for those with at least a bachelor's are up by just 314,000 to 46.5 million, Labor Department figures show.
The trend underlines that some of the midskill jobs that disappeared in the recession are coming back and it may signal more lasting growth in such occupations. They include operators of computerized factory machines, heating and air conditioning repair people, X-ray technicians, medical records specialists and low- to midlevel managers.
INTERACTIVE: Where the jobs are
In recent years, "The share of these jobs has not grown (sharply) relative to (those requiring a bachelor's)," says Anthony Carnevale, head of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. "But they may have begun to do that."
By contrast, employment for people with a high school diploma or less has been stagnant since 2010, after plummeting in the downturn.
After the recession began almost five years ago, many factory, construction and other midskill jobs were eliminated even as employment for those with bachelor's degrees or higher dipped only slightly. In the recovery in 2010 and 2011, payrolls for four-year college graduates increased at more than twice the rate of those who attended community college.
That follows a typical pattern. In recessions, employers lay off lower-skill workers first and in recoveries, they initially hire higher-skill workers, Carnevale says. Eventually, those higher-level managers bring on low- to midlevel managers. That's happening now, and so community college graduates are recouping jobs lost in the downturn - a sign of an advancing recovery.
The trend also points to growing demand for skilled workers who can be trained relatively quickly, Carnevale says. Many laid-off workers have turned to community colleges and vocational schools in recent years to rapidly retool for new careers. That has helped boost enrollment by 14.6% since 2007, vs. 1.3% the previous five years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
By contrast, many recent four-year college graduates have struggled to find work. "I think the two-year schools are offering more of an applicable, practical value," says Thomas Ruhe, vice president of the Kauffman Foundation, which studies entrepreneurship. Many community colleges, he says, have better ties to local employers.
It's unlikely an associate degree will become more coveted than a bachelor's, Carnevale says, but the disparity between the two could narrow.
Krystal Manke, an electrical engineering major at Gateway Technical College in Kenosha, Wis., considered more-expensive four-year schools. But, "I felt that even if I didn't learn the same amount of material (at Gateway), the quality of education would still be very high and it would give me the opportunity to enter the workforce very quickly," she says.