With unemployment near a half-century low, employers are struggling to find workers — and lowering educational requirements as a result. That means job seekers without a bachelor’s degree have better options than in prior years, but may have to migrate to a more receptive area within a polarized U.S. economy.

Opportunities for workers with little to no post-high school education vary across the country, with the Midwest having some of the best options and New York City among the worst. Toledo, Ohio; St. Louis, Missouri; and Lansing, Michigan, are a few of the metro areas with the highest share of jobs that pay wages above the national average and don’t require a college degree, according to a new study by researchers from the Federal Reserve Banks of Cleveland and Philadelphia.

The study ranked 121 U.S. metro areas by share of “opportunity employment,” which is defined as employment accessible to workers without a bachelor’s degree and typically paying above the national median wage, adjusted for regional inflation. Of these areas, Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue ranked 62nd.

Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue’s Top 10 Opportunity Occupations 

  1. Registered nurses (annual median wage: $80,000; opportunity employment: 18,400)
  2. Maintenance and repair workers ($45,100; 17,600)
  3. Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers: ($48,100; 16,100)
  4. Carpenters ($57,200; 15,800)
  5. Construction laborers ($45,700; 14,200)
  6. Secretaries and administrative assistants ($43,500; 13,800)
  7. Electricians ($64,500; 10,500)
  8. Bookkeeping, accounting and auditing clerks ($44,700; 10,500)
  9. Sales representatives, wholesale and manufacturing ($59,100; 8,000)
  10. Sales representatives, services ($56,900; 7,500)

Calculations were based on BLS 2017 data, regional price parity reports and community surveys.

Flyover states

Seventy percent of the top 20-ranked U.S. metros can be found in the Midwest, suggesting “the prevalence of smaller, lower cost cities as it relates to the level of opportunity,” said co-author Kyle Fee of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. “That’s something not a lot of folks think about when they think about the Midwest, but it shows up in our data.” The Top 10 metro areas generally have a lower cost of living.

Coastal metro areas rank poorly. Washington, D.C., New York City, and Los Angeles occupied the bottom three spots with opportunity employment rates of 14.6,% 15.3% and 15.4%, respectively. Compare that with top-rated Toledo, which had 34% opportunity employment. Seattle’s sits in between at 24.5%.


The bottom 10 show a more diverse mix with both larger economies like Washington and San Jose and smaller metro areas like Myrtle Beach, a town that is dominated by lower-wage employment in retail and hospitality, according to co-author Keith Wardrip of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.

That’s despite Myrtle Beach being one of the fastest growing places in recent years.

“For a place like Myrtle Beach, it may be that they could increase opportunities for less-educated workers by trying to diversify their economy and trying to promote growth in sectors that do pay better wages for less-educated workers,” Wardrip said.

Seattle Times Explore staff contributed to this report.