MIT professor: Cities not the land of opportunity they once were

Cities have often been seen as a land of opportunity for those in search of higher wages and job growth. And for young, highly educated adults, that’s still true. But for adults without a college education, it’s not completely clear if such a land exists anymore.

When Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor David H. Autor presented research in Atlanta this winter, he seemed somewhat flummoxed by his own findings, which went against his original assumptions. As expected, he had found that it was a great time for young college graduates to flock to urban areas. But the same couldn’t be said for those with only a high school diploma or less.

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No go for middle-skill workers

In fact, over the past decades, non-college-educated workers have been pushed into low-skill jobs when there was less demand for middle-tier positions and more highly educated job seekers were around to fill whatever clerical roles were left. As office administration, sales and production jobs have been mostly automated and mechanized, non-college-educated middle-skill workers have been kicked out of the fields they once relied on for a livelihood.

Meanwhile, in urban areas, there’s been a growth of managerial, professional and technical posts that offer a high wage, as well as an increase in low-wage, in-person service occupations. One might assume that, with the advent of so many new highly skilled jobs, workers who had occupied the middle-skill roles could move up the rungs for a better, more lucrative career. And among college-educated adults, that’s exactly what happened.

But those who did not attend college experienced the opposite trend. Instead of taking on newly minted, highly skilled roles, city dwellers with a high school diploma or less were funneled into the low-paying service industry jobs that had cropped up, according to Autor’s analysis. They now fill positions in food services, cleaning, security, entertainment, hospitality and other industries that require little skill and promise almost no career development.

And so Autor found the advantages that once came with living in a city have essentially disappeared for those who are not college-educated.

There are new jobs being pioneered all the time, and Autor tried to answer whether those potential career paths could make up for the loss in middle-skill jobs and the uptick in college-educated young adults who are staying in cities after graduation. His conclusion: Not really.

Autor broke the jobs of tomorrow into three categories: Frontier jobs, wealth work jobs and last mile jobs. Frontier jobs — such as wind turbine technicians and intelligence analysts — account for about 5% of the job market. They’re high-paying and dominated by men as well as highly skilled workers.

Wealth work, in contrast, is dominated by women who are only slightly more educated than people in your average job. Some examples:  Exercise physiologist and sommelier.

And then there are the last mile jobs — jobs that have been mostly automated but still require some work by a human being. Think underground utility cable locator. These are jobs that aren’t very desirable and won’t last long, and they’re concentrated among people with a high school education or less, Autor found. Here’s the kicker: Most of them are remote, so they aren’t even located in cities.

Based on the analysis, Autor said he is not as sure that cities are the land of opportunity he once believed they were. They fill that role for a highly skilled workforce looking for career growth. But for everyone else, they promise very little.

So much for concrete jungles where dreams are made of.

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