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Entering the job market? Your education matters more than ever.

The unemployment figures don't lie: The Great Recession accelerated a long-term trend in the job market, in which education and skills are the best guarantees for work and good pay.

By Staff writer / April 12, 2012

Jobseekers stand in line to attend the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. career fair held by the New York State department of Labor in New York on Thursday.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters

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The Great Recession has accelerated what was already a long-term trend: A job market that holds much more promise for the educated and trained than for people with fewer skills.

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Consider just one big-picture comparison: The unemployment rate in March was 4.2 percent for people with college degrees, versus 12.6 percent for people who lack a high school diploma, with the national average right in between those two figures at 8.2 percent.

And beneath that broad trend, some credentials are much more valuable than others. In many fields of study, recent college graduates have jobless rates that are close to the national average or higher, simply because there are so many experienced workers who are also looking for jobs. But in health and education fields, where demand is high, the jobless rate is only about 5.5 percent for recent grads, according to Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.

"It's really imperative that people pay attention to where the demand is going to be," says Nicole Smith, a senior economist at the Center on Education and the Workforce. "It's not just about which occupations are going to grow," she says, but also about how skill levels influence earnings.

Even before 2008, the rise of new technologies was boosting demand for skilled workers, while global competition was eroding the number of blue-collar jobs fields where a high-school diploma could be a ticket to middle-class wages. The recession amplified the process, imposing some of the sharpest job losses on less-skilled factory and construction workers.

Of course, the recession's toll was broader than that. Plenty of college grads are unemployed or underemployed. But the hardest to fill jobs these days often are ones where pay is relatively high, not low.

In computer science and math, for example, every online "help-wanted" listing in March was matched by less than 1 unemployed person in those fields, according to the Conference Board, a business research group in New York. The average wage in those occupations is nearly $38 an hour.

Similarly, the supply of workers is relatively tight for engineers, scientists, and health-care practitioners, all fields with high average pay. By contrast, lower-paying fields including food service, personal care, factory production, and transportation all have a high ratio of jobless workers to job openings.

And Ms. Smith says the long-term outlook is clear: The jobs of the future will demand more know-how than the ones of the past.

The pattern has implications for workers of all types. For people who don't attend college, Smith recommends being licensed or certified for some trade, for example.

There is some good news in a new Labor Department forecast, which predicts job gains in virtually all broad occupational categories. The department's "Employment Projections" says job openings in the coming decade will include many for less-skilled workers: 2 million in retail sales, 5 million in cooking and food service, and growth in numerous smaller occupations as well – bicycle repairers, the nation will need about 6,000 more of you.

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