Report finds Lawrence ranks last in America in having enough jobs for college graduates

photo by: Nick Krug

Graduates toss their caps after the conferral of degrees during the 2011 commencement at Memorial Stadium on Sunday, May 22, 2011.

I have a friend who once was in a blue-collar management job. Just to keep his employees on their toes, he used to remind them that “you don’t need to have a college degree to do this job, but there are plenty of people with one that will.” It appears that nowhere in America is that statement more true than in Lawrence.

A new report shows Lawrence ranks last among all metro areas when it comes to having enough jobs for college graduates.

The report is from the Urban Institute, a respected Washington, D.C.-based think tank that was established by President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s. The report looks at a couple of key statistics for each metro area. The first is the percentage of people 25 and older who have a four-year college degree. It then looks at the percentage of jobs that exist in the metro that typically require a four-year degree, as defined by job descriptions put out by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Lawrence has 52 percent of its 25-and-older population with a college degree, which is much higher than the national average of 31.2 percent. The number of Lawrence jobs requiring a four-year degree is just 19.6 percent. The difference between the two numbers is what the Urban Institute calls the “mix-match.” Lawrence’s mix-match is 32.4 percent, which is the highest of the 387 U.S. metro areas.

That mix-match number, however, probably isn’t the most important figure in the report. After all, one way to have a low mix-match number is to have hardly any college graduates living in your community. That may be a losing strategy for other reasons. Most Lawrence leaders, I believe, think it is positive that Lawrence has a highly educated population.

The eye-catching number is how few jobs in Lawrence require a college degree. At 19.6 percent, Lawrence is well below the national average of 25.8 percent. Why can’t a community that has a plethora of highly educated people figure out how to produce at least an average amount of jobs that require a college degree? That’s the question that this report seems to raise for Lawrence.

Maybe you think it has something to do with Lawrence being a college town. After all, think of all the fast-food workers, bartenders and other service jobs that the community has just to serve college students. But the report shows there are plenty of college towns that are above the national average for the percentage of jobs requiring a college degree.

Lawrence seemed to be one of the worst performing college towns in that regard. I only found a couple of true college towns that had fewer college-level jobs than Lawrence. Waco, Texas — home to Baylor — checks in at 18.1 percent. Tuscaloosa, Ala. — home to a really good football team — checks in at 16.8 percent. At 19.6 percent, Lawrence’s job mix was a bit more like that of a tourist town. Atlantic City, N.J., for example, checked in with college-level jobs at 19 percent.

As for other college communities, here’s a look at some of the top performers, plus others in our region:

• Boulder, Colo.: 37.7 percent

• Corvallis, Ore.: 28.8 percent

• Ames, Iowa: 28.2 percent

• Fort Collins, Colo.: 26.7 percent

• College Station, Texas: 26.1 percent

• Columbia, Mo.: 26 percent

• Morgantown, W.V.: 24.1 percent

• Manhattan: 22.8 percent

• Iowa City, 22.4 percent

• Fayetteville, Ark.: 21.3 percent

You may have noticed that Manhattan ranked ahead of Lawrence. The other metro areas in the state did as well. Here’s a look at some other Kansas and regional metro areas:

• Kansas City, Mo./Kan: 26.5 percent

• Oklahoma City: 26.4 percent

• Omaha, Neb.: 26.2 percent

• Lincoln, Neb.: 25.4 percent

• Topeka: 25.4 percent

• Wichita: 22.5 percent

• Tulsa, Okla.: 22 percent

• Springfield, Mo.: 19.8 percent

• Lawrence: 19.6 percent

• Joplin, Mo.: 17.4 percent

• St. Joseph, Mo.: 16.7 percent

As Lawrence gets ready to hire a lot of new leaders — the city manager, the county administrator and the president and CEO of the Lawrence chamber of commerce — these numbers may be worth keeping in mind. I haven’t yet talked with any leaders about these numbers to get their views about Lawrence’s job mix. But I may do that and write another article.

In the meantime, I wonder if there is basic agreement on one point: Should Lawrence — arguably the education capital of Kansas — have at least an average amount of college-level jobs? If so, it might be worth adding to the goals list for our next set of leaders.


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