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7/19/2013 4:02:00 PM
3/4 of job openings in Arizona require only high school diploma -- or less

Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX -- Got a college degree?

It may not matter if you're looking for work in Arizona.

A new report from the state Department of Administration shows that three-fourths of all the job openings for the next two years will require only a high school diploma -- or less.

Aruna Murthy, director of the economic analysis for the agency, said that is higher than the national average. And she said the trend shows that the demand for jobs that, quite frankly, just don't pay a lot is actually growing in Arizona.

Murthy figures employers will hire 8,769 cashiers, 8,413 waiters and waitresses and 8,158 food preparation workers. And those are the top three categories, followed by retail sales, customer service representatives and clerks.

All that comes as the state university system, which now graduates about 24,000 students a year, hopes to get to 30,000 by 2020. But that raises the question of whether they will be producing new job-seekers who are overqualified for the work that's available here.

"The state is in a legitimate chicken-and-egg scenario,' said economist Dennis Hoffman of the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University.

"We desperately need more opportunities with employers that are 'higher margin' employers,' he said, those that hire people who are more productive and who can demand higher salaries.

"One way to get those folks is to make them aware of the fact we have a lot of talent in this state ready and willing to work,' Hoffman said.

"But you've got to get them here to employ the people we're producing,' he continued. "If we don't have enough job opportunities here, the students we're educating in this state are going to leave.'

Murthy's prediction of 75 percent of new jobs here being for high school grads and less does not surprise Rick Myers, chairman of the Arizona Board of Regents.

He said about 25 percent of Arizonans older than age 25 currently have at least a bachelor's degree. , Myers said that suggests the university system is meeting the state's needs.

But Myers said the state still needs to increase the number of college-educated Arizonans.

"I don't think if we educate more people it's going to mean we're going to have that many more people with college degrees working at McDonalds,' he said.

Instead, Myers sees the same chicken-and-egg conundrum as Hoffman. He sees more college grads as a key to boosting the state's overall economy, attracting higher paying jobs -- and dealing with Arizona's lackluster per capita income in comparison with other states.

The most recent figures from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis put Arizona's per capita personal income at $35,979. That is 84 percent of the national average.

It also ranks Arizona as 41st from the top. Five years before that the state was 32nd.

Hoffman said much of Murthy's forecast makes sense.

He said the whole economy took a hit during the recession. Now there's a need to "backfill' those jobs that were lost, including those at the bottom of the pay and education scale.

But Hoffman said the state can't build an economy on that, saying Arizona needs a solid base of high-wage employers who want to grow here.

"Because if we don't, then in the next downturn, we're going to lose all these folks again,' he said.

Matthew Benson, press aide to Gov. Jan Brewer, said the Arizona Commerce Authority is working to find those companies. But that goes back to the question of an educated workforce.

"You're only going to bring in those employers with a workforce that can slip into those jobs,' he said.

Benson said one figure in Murthy's report shows the effort is paying off: The state expects a 14.2 percent increase in the number of biomedical engineers over the two-year period, the second highest growth rate in the state.

That, however, isn't going to move the needle much in terms of high-tech jobs: In pure numbers that 14.2 percent translates out to just 34 new biomedical engineers on top of the 239 now employed here.

Benson dismissed the question of whether Arizona college grads are going to find themselves overqualified for the jobs that are available.

"We know that education remains the surest path to self-employment in this country,' he said, citing figures that show college grads have a much lower unemployment rate than those with only a high school diploma.

And Myers cited a direct link between wages and education. He said increasing the number of college graduates should get Arizona closer to the national average of more than 30 percent of the adult population with a degree instead of 25 percent here, a move he said which should directly correlate with higher income.

"Part of what we're trying to do is position us to where we have a chance to change the equation in Arizona.

Murthy, however, said there is a larger debate about pushing as many people as possible to go to college. She said there is evidence that economy is actually going to need more people with technical skills -- skills that do not require a four-year degree.

"It's a new age,' she said. Murthy said there is data to show there are many people in Arizona earning $50,000 or more with just a trade-school education.

Benson acknowledged the slide in Arizona's ranking in per capita income. But he said there's a reason for that.

"Arizona was particularly hard hit by the recession, especially the construction industry, which happened to have a lot of high-wage jobs,' he said. "So we're coming out of a deep hole.'

And Benson said the job demand forecast looks the way it does reflects the reality of the Arizona economy and the high percentage of jobs which just don't demand a lot of education.

"That is the result of Arizona having a particularly strong leisure and hospitality industry,' he said, workers at bars, restaurants and hotels. He said that industry helped prop up the economy during the last five years.

"So we're glad that we have that,' he said.

Murthy said, though, Arizona can't build an economy on that.

"We need to have some jobs on the lower end, the middle end and the higher end,' she said.

Taylor Waste

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