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Never Mind, Harvard, Job Seekers Will Do Just Fine Without You

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS - JULY 08: A view of the campus of Harvard University on July 08, 2020 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology have sued the Trump administration for its decision to strip international college students of their visas if all of their courses are held online. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS - JULY 08: A view of the campus of Harvard University on July 08, 2020 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology have sued the Trump administration for its decision to strip international college students of their visas if all of their courses are held online. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) (Photographer: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images North America)
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It’s been a tough job market for much of the past 20 years, making a grim landscape for workers and contributing to a world of haves and have-nots. Now the have-nots are finally getting their shot.

Young people had become resigned to the idea that landing their dream job in high-paying industries like tech or finance meant going to the most prestigious college possible no matter the cost or student debt you had to accumulate. It was an expensive crapshoot at best, and resulted in a lot of stress and investment in education on the part of parents and students.

Today, prospects for workers are much brighter. By a lot of measures the labor market is at least as strong now as it was before the onset of the pandemic. And while it seems innately true that a stronger labor market is better for a broader swath of the workforce, it’s never been quite that simple when it comes to what young people need to do to give themselves the best start. Strategies that worked a decade ago won’t necessarily be the only ones that work in our current economy.

Here’s the biggest shift: For the last generation of workers, pressure was intense to get the best possible education in the hopes of landing a prized job in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street. But young workers also need to think in terms of return on investment — getting a good job without spending so much time and money that it’s counterproductive. In that context, today’s winners can afford to be more cost-conscious. There are now more positions opening up than there are workers with expensive college degrees to fill them, forcing companies to be less picky and allowing students to choose more affordable options for their educations.

This economy is widening opportunities at the other end of the spectrum, too. The New York Times recently published an article looking at a community benefiting from today’s strong labor market: students at Nashville State Community College in Tennessee. One 18-year-old student left her studies to take a job at the Kroger grocery chain as a front-end manager making $21 an hour, with opportunities to advance. Dropping out of college is a risky move, but making mid-five figures in a management role at a very young age is a compelling proposition.

Having more choices can be crucial to the long-term financial security of young workers. There’s a huge difference in tuition cost between Nashville State and the more well-known private universities in the city. A full course load at Nashville State costs just a little over $4,000 per year. Tuition at private, four-year Belmont University in the area is 10 times higher, at $40,000 per year, and elite Vanderbilt University is higher still, at $58,000 per year.

Pursuing the Kroger opportunity, with the option of going back to school at a low cost if it doesn’t work out, seems like a reasonable decision for many young workers. And who knows, maybe things pan out and the young woman moves up the ranks at Kroger and doesn’t need that college degree to secure a solid income.

Baby boomer retirements play an important role in the next generation’s outlook. Between the early 1980’s and the early 2000’s — when I was coming out of college — the number of mid-career workers in the United States, those between the ages of 35 and 54, grew by 30 million as boomers got jobs and climbed the ladder. If young people in the 2000s felt like it was hard to get a foot in the door at companies, it was because there were plenty of experienced, skilled, mid-career workers who weren’t going anywhere.

But over the past 20 years the ranks of 35-to-54-year-old employees hasn’t grown at all as boomers aged and younger generations weren’t big enough to fill in behind them. Companies haven’t focused on succession plans for the wave of retiring employees, and that’s creating more opportunity for young people who either can’t afford — or don’t want to pay an exorbitant amount for — a degree. Companies and would-be employees are now figuring out exactly how much and what kind of education is really necessary to fill jobs like assistant manager at a grocery store or a telecommunications technician.

This doesn’t mean that there is going to be a recruiting pipeline leading from community colleges and lower-cost state schools to elite employers like Goldman Sachs and Google. But there are tens of millions of decent jobs opening up at boring-but-established companies that can be filled by people with educations costing in the thousands rather than hundreds of thousands of dollars.

That might not pay for million-dollar houses in New York or California, but it can lead to a perfectly prosperous life in much of the rest of the country. And it means a job market that works for a lot more people than we’ve seen in a long time.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

Job Market Is Heading for a Soft Landing of Its Own: Conor Sen

Powell’s Job Market Theory Is Proving Faulty: Jonathan Levin

America Must Work Harder for Homegrown Talent: Adrian Wooldridge

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Conor Sen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is founder of Peachtree Creek Investments and may have a stake in the areas he writes about.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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