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MCC study finds associate degrees outpace bachelor’s in earnings in county

Brace yourself, college graduates, and hold onto your diplomas: There’s an explosive claim coming from a McHenry County College-commissioned study.

The study found that local workers who have an associate degree earn more than those with a bachelor’s degree.

Before you banish this newspaper to the bottom of the bird cage in a fit of rage over wasted tuition, it’s important to home in on one word – workers. The study also found that those who live in the county and have higher degrees are leaving the county for employment.

“We have well-educated residents, but the bad thing is a lot of the well-educated people are leaving to go somewhere else [for employment],” said Laura Brown, the college’s vice president of institutional advancement.

The study, called an environmental scan, was conducted by Northern Illinois University’s Center for Governmental Studies for the community college. Researchers cross-tabulated scores of data from agencies such as the U.S. Census Bureau, the Department of Employment Security, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and more.

The results offer a snapshot of county demographics, economic drivers and educational trends.

In McHenry County’s workforce, a bachelor’s degree doesn’t necessarily equate to higher earnings, the center found, a trend most likely driven by the county’s top two employers – manufacturing and health care.

Manufacturing remains a key economic driver in McHenry County, although it has lost jobs in recent years.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2000 there were 21,283 manufacturing jobs; in 2011, that number dipped to 15,398.

“The efficiencies in manufacturing have driven down the number of [employees] needed, but the productivity numbers are up,” said Pam Cumpata, president of the McHenry County Economic Development Corp.

The salaries vary by profession. But, in the most locally in-demand occupations – registered nurses, general and operations managers or dental hygienists – workers earn, on average, $65,022, $83,433 and $66,471, respectively, according to 2008 data the study used. All of these occupations require at least an associate degree and some additional years of training.

On the other end, the county’s largest employers that require a bachelor’s degree – namely school teachers, accountants and auditors or sales reps – are outearned by the above-mentioned careers. Secondary teachers, on average, make $56,618; accountants and auditors, $54,045; and sales reps, $61,090.

McHenry County was home to 139,674 workers in 2010, the study found, but only 85,548 jobs. This means that a significant number of workers are leaving the county for employment, which is no surprise to anyone riding the Metra rails or stuck in rush-hour traffic on the Kennedy Expressway.

One-third of McHenry County residents commute at least 25 miles to work, the study found, calling it “a mismatch between the jobs in the McHenry County and the available labor force.”

Because workers are leaving the county for employment, a large number of these higher paying jobs that could otherwise be occupied by local workers are being filled by those coming from outside the county. The college wants to capitalize on that by offering courses geared toward those workers.

“People come to the college in two ways,” Brown said. “They either reside in our county or come to our county for work. Those are our potential markets – who’s coming in and what jobs are they coming for?”

The workers traveling longer distances to work are predominately mid-career, white-collar professionals who earn more than $40,000 annually, the NIU center found.

“People go where there are opportunities and advancement and sometimes [they] don’t look in [their] backyard,” Cumpata said.

MCC paid $8,000 for the environmental scan and intends to use it as a tool to guide its course offerings and future operations at the college.

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