More of Today’s Manufacturing Workers Have Bachelor’s Degrees than Ever Before

Anthony P. Carnevale
Oct 25 · 3 min read

By Anthony P. Carnevale

In the 1970s, a high school dropout could get a well-paying job in manufacturing. In fact, in 1970, high school dropouts held 43% of jobs in the industry, and workers with a high school diploma held 36%. By 2016, however, workers with a high school diploma or less made up just 43% of the manufacturing workforce.

It may come as no surprise that there aren’t as many manufacturing jobs available for workers without postsecondary education. But it’s also true that workers with bachelor’s degrees make up a growing share of the manufacturing workforce. Between 1991 and 2016, employment in manufacturing shrunk by 30%, and good manufacturing jobs — which provide family-sustaining earnings — decreased by 1.6 million. As a share of the American workforce, manufacturing employment declined from 22% in 1979 to 9% in 2017.

These industry-wide changes mean that there are fewer good jobs in the industry for workers with a high school education or less. Between 1991 and 2016, these jobs fell from 4.5 million to 2.5 million. In contrast, the number of good jobs for workers with a bachelor’s degree or more grew from 2.8 million to 3.6 million.

The glory days of American manufacturing are gone and unlikely to return, as the industry plays a smaller role in an economy now dominated by services. But despite its decline, manufacturing has become more productive with the help of technology and more highly skilled workers. From the height of manufacturing employment in 1979, output per worker increased from $293,000 to $485,000 in 2017. Since 1991, manufacturing output has grown 60%. The manufacturing industry is still thriving, just with a smaller workforce.

And there’s some good news for today’s manufacturing workers:

  1. Median wages for all workers are higher than those in other blue-collar or skilled-services industries.
  2. Workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher earn $20,000 more on average than their peers in other industries.
  3. Manufacturing remains the top provider of good jobs in 35 states for workers without a bachelor’s degree.

As the industry’s workforce continues to upskill, the best way to get a good job in manufacturing is to obtain education and training beyond high school. The past will not return, but there may be a bright future for more highly educated workers in manufacturing.

Watch the video below and visit CEW’s website to learn more about Upskilling and Downsizing in American Manufacturing and The Way We Were: The Changing Geography of US Manufacturing from 1940 to 2016.


Dr. Carnevale is Director and Research Professor of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, an independent, nonprofit research and policy institute affiliated with the Georgetown McCourt School of Public Policy that studies the link between education, career qualifications, and workforce demands.

Follow the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce on Twitter, (@GeorgetownCEW), LinkedIn, YouTube, and Facebook.

Georgetown CEW

The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce is a nonprofit, independent research institute that studies the link between education and the workforce.

Anthony P. Carnevale

Written by

Director and Research Professor at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, an independent, nonprofit research and policy institute.

Georgetown CEW

The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce is a nonprofit, independent research institute that studies the link between education and the workforce.

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