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Recovery Skipped Workers Without Degrees, Turning Them To Trump

Zoom out from Trump's "rusted out factories scattered like tombstones" and a bigger, if not prettier, picture comes into focus.
Image: A factory worker wears a protective mask.
A factory worker wears a protective mask.Sasintipchai / Getty Images

As America digests its latest employment report, it's clear there are jobs out there. But what kinds of jobs they are has changed — leaving out one class of workers much more than others.

Zoom out from Trump's "rusted out factories scattered like tombstones" and a bigger, if not prettier, picture ratchets into focus.

"We are in the midst of a shift from being primarily a product economy to a knowledge economy," said NBC business correspondent Ali Velshi. Those without the knowledge aren't participating in it: We don't have a jobs gap. We have a skills gap.

Hardhat vs white collar job employment graph
Jobs are rising but what kind of jobs there are have shifted. One example: Since President Reagan, manufacturing jobs have down while professional and business services employment is up.Ben Popken / BLS

Since President Reagan, tectonic upheavals in the American economy have driven jobs like those in manufacturing down, while fields like professional services have risen.

Change means both creation and destruction. For one out-of-work coal miner and his family, or a community that's become a ghost town, that can be hard to swallow.

Yet the data shows that overall we have more people working today than ever before. And there are more jobs open today than in the last 16 years, CNBC notes.

Total employment
Total U.S. employment is higher than it's ever been.BLS

But those jobs aren't for everyone. That's the rub that became a national conflagration.

The slow economic recovery has left out workers with a high school education more than others. Their unemployment rates spiked higher during the 2008 recession and have yet to recover.

Meanwhile, those with higher education are at least treading water. Not that they're all doing so well either.

"Real family incomes have been inching up in the past couple of years, but for many families that does not compensate them for the losses they suffered between 2007 and 2010," said Gary Burtless, an economist at the left-leaning Brookings Institute.

"Workers in the bottom half of the earnings distribution do not have much to cheer about. Their wages are not much improved if at all compared with the late 1990s."

Unemployment rates by education
As of December 2016, the unemployment rate was nearly 8 percent for workers with less than a high school diploma. For those with a college degree or higher, it's below 4 percent. (Data goes back to 1992, the earliest BLS has available on this topic).BLS

A recent Marketplace story profiled laid-off steel mill workers in Granite City, Illinois. They're learning how to program the robots that replaced them in classes sponsored by the state and the steel union. The machines can do in 15 minutes what used to take the men five hours.

“It's not coming back the way I know it... That's just a fact,” said a 61-year-old former machinist laid off last year just before Christmas. "So that's what I have to wrap my head around is... how to adapt to what's out there."

University of Illinois at Chicago economics professor Lawrence Officer told American Public Media's Marketplace these workers are the "structurally unemployed."

"Structurally, their industries, their firms have shrunk or vanished, and their skills remain, but they are not easily transferable to other sectors where there's a demand for labor," he said.

Programs like those in Granite City do exist elsewhere, but compared to countries such as Germany the U.S. lags far behind demand for apprenticeship and retraining programs for displaced workers.

Those workers with less education can then feel tossed in the trash. And according to exit polls, they voted for Trump:

Exit polls
National exit polls showed voter preference for Trump among workers with no college degree.

(So did workers with degrees, of course, but in lower numbers: 43 percent of Trump voters had a degree compared to 52 percent for Clinton).

Based on long-term downward trends, those who voted for Trump hoping for a manufacturing and blue collar revival may find themselves waiting quite some time for it to materialize.