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Our Opinion: Portland's earning power set by degrees

Four years of college can do wonders for a person’s lifetime earnings, but in and of itself, a college education is not the key to the Portland area’s prosperity.

For people entering the work force, specific skills are what matter most — not the number of university hours they spent studying 18th Century literature.

We have nothing against English majors — we’ve even hired a few. However, a report issued this week by the Value of Jobs Coalition provides evidence that Portland has a surplus of college graduates who majored in the humanities, while it could use more graduates who hold degrees commanding higher wages.

The coalition that commissioned the research, which was done by ECONorthwest, is made up of several local business organizations, including the Portland Business Alliance. The report examines reasons why the Portland area has trailed its peer cities in per-capita income. A surprising finding is that the largest income gap between Portland and other cities is associated with this region’s college-educated workers, particularly male graduates. According to the report, they work less and earn less on average than their counterparts in other cities.

When the ECONorthwest researchers dug deeper, they found that the Portland area does well in attracting young college graduates in general, but it lags a bit in the categories of advanced degrees and professional degrees. The natural result is less overall earning power for the region.

This may seem like nothing more than an interesting academic question — or perhaps a reinforcement of the Portland slacker stereotype — until you consider the regional effects of lower average wages. If the Portland area’s college graduates earned the same amount as their peers in other U.S. metro areas, they would generate an additional $2.7 billion in annual earnings. That would result in greater tax collections in a state dependent on income taxes. It also would mean more money circulating in the local economy to support businesses and families.

Portland, like other metro areas, has focused in recent years on livability, with a goal of attracting educated young people to this region. That strategy has worked, but it doesn’t go far enough. Portland also must attract the right kinds of industry and the right kinds of jobs. Plus, it must produce or recruit the educated work force that high-paying industries require. That doesn’t mean, however, that every student must earn an advanced degree.

What industries need are workers who obtain specific useful skills in high schools, community colleges or universities. Right now, Portland Public Schools, for example, is turning students away from Benson Polytechnic High School, which has seen its new student enrollment capped at 260. Benson historically has provided career and technical education to students who go on to be very successful in life.

At the same time, community colleges in Oregon are once again at risk of being funded by the state at a level that doesn’t allow them to enroll and train everyone who wants to upgrade his or her skills.

Certainly, the Portland area needs more people with master’s degrees and doctorates, but it also must make a stronger connection between education and the world of work. If more young or returning students seek out the skills that employers desperately need, then more jobs will be filled, more industries will arrive and incomes naturally will increase.

Such increased community wealth will benefit everyone — even the English majors among us.

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