Heartland of Opportunity

Julie Trivitt and Joel Kotkin

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This report focuses on how to identify opportunity occupations for working-class people and what locations are well suited to grow and support these occupations.

Can the American Dream be saved?

The U.S. middle-class, which epitomizes American values such as hard work, commitment to family and the expectation that a relatively secure future is achievable for almost all, is less easily obtained today than in the past 60 years. Unequal labor productivity gains, where highly educated and high-income workers have seen the largest productivity growth due to technological changes and market forces have contributed to the income distribution evolving such that income inequality is growing while income mobility is shrinking. 

This report looks at opportunity occupations, those that offer middle-class wages but do not require a bachelor’s degree, and how readily available those jobs are in the metro and non-metro regions of the U.S. Heartland (the 20 states in the middle of the U.S.) We find that there are opportunity occupations in the Heartland, in relatively large numbers, and those occupations are quite consistent across the Heartland. Jobs as registered nurses, customer service representatives and heavy truck drivers are the three most common routes to a middle-income lifestyle without a bachelor’s degree.  

Labor markets are still changing rapidly, and these measures bear watching as wages and employment in different occupations adjust to post pandemic conditions. 

Key Findings: 

  • Opportunity occupations make up a significant share of the jobs available in the non-metro as well as the metro regions in the Heartland — more so than the non-Heartland comparison states. 
  • In general, the Heartland offers more opportunity jobs than low-wage jobs, but it is not true for all states individually. 
  • Many of the most common opportunity occupations are predicted to have negative job growth over the next five years, which is concerning.  
  • Other occupations in health care, transportation and logistics may replace the middle-wage jobs with minimal retraining. 
  • Some occupations earn drastically different wages in different regions within the same state. This may present opportunities for more workers to earn middle-class wages with short relocations. 
  • Infrastructure dollars applied toward strengthening the middle-class may be most effective if deployed in a way that contributes to opportunity employment for blue-collar workers.   
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