Advanced degree may not help much in region's job market

| Sunday, Feb. 27, 2011

After Merry Eagle's husband died of cancer about five years ago, she began working a series of minimum-wage jobs -- everything from parking cars to working in a fast food restaurant.

She still ended up losing her car and home.

Last spring, however, she completed free training for displaced workers as a certified nursing assistant at Community College of Allegheny County. Now she makes $11 an hour at Forbes Regional Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Larimer, helping patients with Alzheimer's disease.

"That's not huge money, but it's a big increase," said Eagle, 47, of Port Vue. "After everything I've been through and everything I've lost, it's made a world of difference."

Eagle said she has learned the lesson of many Americans: If you want to get a job and make a decent living, you have to get more education.

"People with higher education usually get jobs quicker, and they don't have long periods of unemployment," said Vera Krekanova Krofcheck, research manager for the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board.

Nationally, the unemployment rate is highest --14.6 percent -- for people without a high school diploma and lowest --2.3 percent -- for people with professional degrees such as physicians and lawyers, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Likewise, people without a high school diploma make the lowest salaries at an average of $774 a week, and people with a doctoral degree make the most, at an average of $1,532 a week.

The Pittsburgh job market, though, is different.

"Locally, we don't need many (people) with advanced degrees," Krofcheck said. "We're strong in health care, education and finance and professional technical services. Really, a bachelor's degree is what makes the trick."

As a result, people with a master's degree in this area don't make as much money, on average, as workers with a bachelor's degree or even an associate degree.

A study by the investment board shows that a person with a bachelor's degree made an average of $27.29 an hour last year compared with $25.74 an hour for someone with an associate degree. A worker with a master's degree made an average of just $22.70.

Krofcheck said the anomaly is most noticeable in the health care sector, where a worker can make more money than someone with a master's degree in English or art history.

Bidwell Training Center in the North Side offers seven majors that take seven weeks to a year to complete. All of the programs, including pharmacy technician, are linked to areas where jobs are available.

"You do not need a college education today for the majority of jobs in this region, but you need some postsecondary training," said Valerie Njie, executive director and senior vice president of Bidwell.

John Watkins Jr., 46, of Elliot is an example. He graduated last year from Bidwell's culinary arts program to get a job as a cook. He had worked 15 years as a printing press operator, but was laid off as more customers switched to copiers and home printers.

Now he works at the Fairmont Pittsburgh hotel, Downtown.

When he worked in printing, Watkins said, he couldn't see the customers' faces and whether they appreciated his work.

"The way our kitchen is set up, it's an open kitchen," he said. "The customers will come up and compliment you on the way the food tastes and the way it looks."

Watkins makes $12 an hour, the same as when he was in printing. But his goal is to be a chef, a job that could pay $70,000 to $80,000 a year.

At Carnegie Mellon University, 168 employers signed up to take part in a job fair on Feb. 10 to recruit its students. That's an increase of 13.5 percent over last year.

"We have noticed that more employers are interested in coming to college campuses and hiring college graduates," said Farouk cq Dey, director of the Career and Professional Development Center at CMU.

Last year, annual starting salaries averaged $66,202 among CMU undergraduates. Topping the chart was computer science at $78,276, followed by electrical and computer engineering at $71,667.

Mark Anthony, director of the Career Development Center at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, called the current job market "challenging" for its graduates. But he said those with degrees in safety science do the best, with salaries ranging from $55,000 to $62,000 a year.

Take Eric Porter, 28, of Indiana. He graduated from IUP with a bachelor's degree in marketing. He worked in sales, disliked it and went back to IUP, where he graduated with a bachelor's degree in safety science in May.

He now works as the safety, health and environmental administrator at McConway cq & Torley LLC, a steel foundry in Lawrenceville. He gives safety training to employees and contractors.

"I'm definitely glad I went back and got the safety degree," he said. "It fits my personality. I'm not sitting at a desk all day, and I'm not on the floor all day."

Additional Information:

How much do they make?

• Occupation: Safety, health and environmental administrator

Pay range: $40,000 to $60,000

Qualifications: bachelor's degree in safety science

Occupation: Director of career development

Pay range: $50,720 to $87,359

Qualifications: master's degree in counseling; experience working on college campus

• Occupation: Research manager

Pay range: $40,000 to $60,000

Qualifications: bachelor's degree in public policy or administration

• Occupation: Cook III

Pay range: About $25,000

Qualifications: graduate of culinary arts program

• Occupation: Certified nursing assistant

Pay range: About $20,800

Qualifications: graduate of the certified nursing assistant program

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