Jul 22, 2021 - Business

How to lift America's heartland into the middle class

Opportunity occupations in the heartland
Reproduced from Heartland Forward; Map: Axios Visuals

A report out today says that with the right strategies, states in America's heartland can increase opportunities for residents to move into the middle class.

State of play: The American middle class has been declining for years as both upper- and lower-income groups have grown, creating a wider gap between the two.

  • A strong middle class is recognized as important for economic stability, and to drive innovation, build businesses, and pay taxes.

The big picture: The report by Heartland Forward outlines how the 20 states in the center of the country can identify opportunity occupations — ones that pay enough for financial stability but don't require a four-year college degree — and create pathways to fill those jobs, especially outside major metro areas.

  • Heartland Forward is a Bentonville-based think tank focused on improving economic performance in the 20-state region in the center of the U.S.
  • Unique to this study is a dedicated effort to include opportunities in non-metro regions (areas with fewer than 50,000 residents), Ross DeVol, president and CEO of Heartland Forward, tells Axios.
  • 17.5% of the U.S. population lives in non-metro areas.

What they did: The report uses data on wages, median incomes and job growth projections to identify jobs that provide a living wage without requiring higher education.

Details: Eight jobs come out on top across metro and non-metro regions of heartland states.

  1. Registered nurses
  2. Truck drivers
  3. Maintenance and repair workers
  4. Retail supervisors
  5. Bookkeeping, accounting clerks
  6. Construction laborers
  7. Secretaries, administrative assistants
  8. Customer service representatives

The intrigue: The authors found that non-metro areas have a larger percentage of jobs that qualify as opportunity occupations. That includes:

  • Metal and plastic machine operators in Arkansas and Iowa
  • Cooling and freezing equipment operators in Minnesota and Arkansas
  • Farmworkers and laborers in Iowa
  • Surface mining workers and manicurists/pedicurists in Tennessee

Yes, but: The authors point out the heartland is projected to have lower employment growth for the next five years, and many of the opportunity jobs will decline.

  • However, the five-year projected rates in the heartland are better than the national projection.

What to watch: The report's authors urge policymakers to consider which occupations are projected for growth in their areas and make sure conditions are in place to provide career paths.

  • Training, wage transparency, encouraging investment and making sure policies don't hinder growth industries are important factors.
  • Plus: Vocational schools and community colleges should look to tie curriculum to the needs of employers in their regions, DeVol says.

What they're saying: The report isn't a complete economic blueprint for policymakers, but DeVol hopes they'll use it as a guide to develop a long-term strategy.

  • "As the cost of obtaining a four-year degree rises, jobs in fields like health care, transportation and logistics offer appealing alternatives for workers who aspire to earn stable, middle-class wages," DeVol says.

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