How to Save the American Dream

Ross DeVol Commentary

How to Save the American Dream

The American dream is under threat. Rising income inequality and falling income mobility, trends exacerbated by the pandemic, have given rise to skepticism that any American can achieve a stable, respectable income through hard work. These trends affect Arkansas workers and families even more.

But new research at Heartland Forward sheds light on a proven path to the middle class that’s increasingly important for workers in heartland states like Arkansas. Arkansas’ comparative strength resides in being second in the nation in the share of its workforce in skilled trades. Opportunity occupations — jobs like heavy tractor-trailer truck drivers, occupational therapy assistants and retail sales supervisors that pay good wages but do not require a college degree — offer an attainable means of class mobility for millions of Americans. To revitalize the middle class — and the American dream itself — Arkansas leaders should ensure that these occupations are widely accessible.

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As the cost of college rises, many young Americans are reconsidering whether college is right for them, and their timing couldn’t be better. Labor shortages in sectors like manufacturing mean that skilled workers, not necessarily college-educated ones, are in high demand. This is not a short-term, sectoral phenomenon. Unemployment in opportunity occupations is lower than overall unemployment, and opportunity occupations are set to grow faster than the overall rate of job growth over the next few years.

Young Arkansans should be especially optimistic about attaining class mobility without a four-year degree. Our research found that opportunity occupations are more prevalent in heartland states like Arkansas. In fact, 38.8% of all jobs in Arkansas are opportunity occupations, outnumbering low-wage jobs in metro areas and slightly below them in non-metro areas.

Across the heartland, we found that non-metro areas are home to more opportunity occupations than metro areas, challenging the myth of a rural America in decay. National media often point to young people moving from small towns to big cities for work, yet there are many fields where workers can earn more by doing the opposite. This is especially true when accounting for the greater affordability of non-metro areas.

While the prevalence of attainable, middle-income jobs is good news, we cannot be complacent. Administrative, supervisory and clerical jobs, which pay good wages and often do not require a college degree, are projected to dwindle in the coming years. At the same time, the demand for skilled labor in health care and transportation and logistics should grow rapidly. Shifts in the labor market like these helped precipitate the decline of the American middle class. We must be prepared for them this time.

Arkansas leaders should work to fill opportunity occupations with a keen awareness of which sectors are growing and which are shrinking. Heavily subsidized or free tuition for students entering community colleges or apprenticeship programs in opportunity, high-demand occupations are policies worth pursuing. More focus on establishing opportunity career pathways by local firms might improve prospects for earnings progression and mobility. Adjusting labor regulations and investing in training programs for careers in growing fields like transportation, logistics and health care will pay dividends.

Likewise, policymakers throughout the heartland region should share information on jobs and wages in their states. Often, workers can increase their standard of living by moving short distances for higher-paying jobs. Outreach to non-metro areas will be critical, as survey data shows that Americans in rural areas are less eager to train or move for new jobs than their urban counterparts.

A strong middle class makes for a strong country. When workers can count on a decent, stable income, they can more easily save for retirement, raise families and educate their children. With the right support from policymakers, opportunity occupations can help reverse inequality and declining class mobility. They just may be the salvation of the American dream and allow more Arkansans to participate in that dream.

Ross DeVol is CEO of Heartland Forward of Bentonville, a nonprofit whose goal is to foster job creation, wage gains and economic growth.