Opportunity Occupations: Joining the Workforce


Opportunity occupations: jobs that pay a good wage without requiring a four-year college degree

Meet Jaime Pearson. You probably know someone like her. Jaime was a stay-at-home mom for years, but her family found it difficult to keep up with the mortgage, put food on the table, and pay the bills. They needed another income.


Like roughly two-thirds of U.S. working-age adults, Jaime does not have a bachelor's degree. What she does have are many of the soft skills employers look for, and with those skills and job training provided by her employer, Jaime was able to secure a good-paying job.

We visited Jaime and her family in Toledo, Ohio, to hear her story. We also heard from economic and workforce development professionals about postsecondary training and job opportunities available to those without a bachelor's degree.

Research shows that college graduates have the highest earnings potential, but that doesn't mean people like Jaime are relegated to low-wage jobs. Researchers at the Federal Reserve have identified a range of opportunity occupations, which are jobs that require less education than a four-year college degree and that pay at least the national annual median wage ($37,690 in 2017), adjusted for differences in the cost of living.

Across the 121 metro areas we examined in our 2019 report, some 22 percent of jobs qualify as opportunity employment. Toledo tops the list with the highest share of opportunity employment, at 34 percent. Our continuing work explores local workforce trends and identifies common skills employers look for when hiring so that job seekers may be better informed of the various pathways to careers.

Jaime's story, like the story of Toledo's approach to creating a productive workforce development ecosystem, is not unique. There are many workers like Jaime and many cities like Toledo.

What's your area's story? Explore our research and tools below to learn more.



Report: Opportunity Occupations Revisited

For detailed analysis, data, and methods, download the 2019 report Opportunity Occupations Revisited: Exploring Employment for Sub-Baccalaureate Workers Across Metro Areas and Over Time.





Tool: Opportunity Occupations Monitor

Our Opportunity Occupations Monitor is an online tool that lets you compare opportunity occupations (how many, wage ranges, and more) in states and metros across the country, making it easy to map a course to career opportunities without having a four-year degree.





Fact Sheets

Find the top opportunity occupations, how much they pay, and where they are in many of the nation's largest metro areas. We've also got materials by state (with more states coming soon!).

Metro Fact Sheets

Check out these printable fact sheets for the 121 metro areas covered in our 2019 report.

State Fact Sheets

Opportunity Occupations: Joining the Workforce Video Transcript

Jaime Pearson, truck scales administrator, North Star BlueScope Steel: So, on my commute, I love to listen to music. I will listen to all kinds of different music and that helps me pass the time because it takes about 25 to 30 minutes to get here. Depends on how fast I go. But you know, always within the speed limit. Always. We are at the truck scale at North Star BlueScope Steel. We are dealing with every truck that comes into the facility and every truck that is leaving. They could be coming in to pick up a coil. They could be bringing in various types of scrap. Or they could be bringing in a delivery. We are like our own little island out here. We're a little two-story building with scales. Three scales around us. And within this little building we do a lot of different things. We will scale in and out the trucks. We will also answer the telephone. We will talk on three different radios. They can get ahold of us for anything they might need help with, for questions, or just for a little chuckle now and then. [Into speaker, to truck driver] I see it moving now.

Keith Wardrip, community development research manager, Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia: So an opportunity occupation is one that does not require a four-year college degree and that typically pays above the national annual median wage of around $38,000, after adjusting for local differences and cost of living.

Gary Thompson, executive vice president and chief operating officer, Regional Growth Partnership: The key to Toledo's success in nurturing opportunity occupations, I think, is really threefold. One, it's our educational system. It's also a confluence of a lot of industry and applications. And thirdly, is really the cost of living in Toledo, Ohio.

Pearson [into speaker]: You're all set going South 26.

Voice on speaker: Thank you.

Pearson: I have been employed at North Star for one and a half years. Before working here, I was a stay-at-home mom for 11 years. I did not have a degree. I was worried about that fact. My parents, growing up, they always tried to drive home the fact that if you want a good job and make a nice living and provide for your family, you're going to need a degree. So, I really didn't have high hopes for what kind of a job I could get.

Marisa Bergman, human resource team leader, North Star BlueScope Steel: I think the people out there that don't have bachelor's degrees don't know that they have all these opportunities that are out there for them right now. The employers are looking for individuals like them and they just need to kind of start researching.

Wardrip: We studied the employment opportunities in 121 of the largest metropolitan areas in the country, and what we found was that roughly 22 percent of those positions met our definition of opportunity employment.

Coleena Ali, vice president of resident services, Lucas Metropolitan Housing Authority: So, being able to understand what those jobs are and what additional training may be needed, now it may not be college, it may be short-term training. Some of them may be a little bit longer.

Pearson: If you talked to me before I started this job, I don't know what kinds of scrap there were, and I had no idea about alloys and deliveries and where things go. And so I started from ground zero. And I'm still learning. I've been here a year and a half and there's still a lot that I need to learn. I've come a long way and I have a longer way to go, but I'm excited to see the progress of it all.

Thompson: So, in order to be successful in the opportunity occupations, you really have to have a network of folks working together, trusting each other. That network needs to involve local elected officials, county commissioners, state representatives, mayors, city council people. It needs to involve educators at the high school level, at the community college level.

Ali: You can no longer operate in a silo. It takes a community, it takes many individuals, many entities to make it work. Because there's various pieces that really need to be pulled together besides just the availability of a job.

Wardrip: If we don't understand the economic opportunities that are open to this population, we run the risk of, of not providing decent-paying work for these workers. Also, not providing employers with well-trained workers to fill their open positions.

Pearson: The things that have changed since I started working: we have caught up on several bills, we no longer have the stress of if we're able to pay the phone bill, or the light bill, or even the mortgage itself. The threat of losing your home will definitely drive you to seek out a job.

Bergman: Jaime's a really great individual and when she came in to interview, we thought, ‘This is a great pick.' We think that she's going to add value, she's going to be a great team player, she's going to communicate well, she's going to be a great problem solver. And it's turned out to be that.

Pearson: I feel very lucky to have this job. I'm proud to come in each day and work my shifts. And I enjoy doing the paperwork. I enjoy scaling trucks in and out. I enjoy solving problems and helping others out. For those out there with no degree or no real work history, you do not need to come down on yourself and worry that you're never going to find a good job. There are companies out there that will help you, you just need to find them, and you need to bring the right personality, drive, you need to have that commitment to be there each day and do the best you can do.

Thompson: It's not about a thousand jobs for me. It's about John and Jane Doe who get the jobs and what it means for their lives and the lives of their children.

Ali: What success looks like with workforce development, the individual stories are actually much more successful to me than the large numbers, because I don't know the numbers. I know the people.