Best jobs for college dropouts, and other reader questions!

Students take a break on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley.
Students take a break on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. (David Odisho/Bloomberg News)

Each week, the Department of Data begs readers to send in quantifiable queries. In just a few months, we’ve received more than 500 submissions and discovered that you’re not just absurdly enthusiastic about data — and rightly so! — you’re also frighteningly smart.

Most of your questions are worthy subjects for entire columns. We’ll take a peek at a few of them in today’s Data Dive.

What are the highest-paying jobs for college dropouts? — Holly Baral in California

We’re also curious about this, Ms. Baral! College dropouts are a massive and massively ignored population. At 14.5 percent of the workforce, they’re the third-biggest education group, behind folks with a bachelor’s degree (27 percent) and those with high school diplomas (25 percent). And that’s not even counting an additional 11 percent who have an associate’s degree, and are often lumped in with college dropouts in federal statistics.

On average, college dropouts age 25 and older earned about $27.90 an hour, according to our analysis of inflation-adjusted Labor Department data from 2019 to 2022 — sharply lower than the national average of $35.50 an hour for that age group.

But in their highest-paying industry, petroleum product manufacturing (which includes refineries), average earnings climb to $43 an hour. Other top-earning categories for college dropouts include mining and utilities.

Women who dropped out of college look a bit different: They earn most in utilities, mining, finance, publishing and construction. Men hew more closely to the overall pattern.

To be sure, a few exceptional people who lack a degree or diploma manage nonetheless to break into the highest-paying industries, such as internet publishing. Those are, in theory, the best jobs for dropouts or anyone else. But we can’t include those fortunate outliers in our charts because there aren’t enough of them for a valid analysis — or a valid career path.

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Compared with the rest of the population, college dropouts are more likely to work in transportation and warehousing, retail and telecom. They’re least likely to work in education or internet publishing.

High school dropouts, in case you’re curious, make up another 6 percent of the workforce. They’re most likely to work in agriculture, as household service workers such as house cleaners, in wood-product and food manufacturing, or in construction. They’re least likely to work in insurance, finance or internet publishing.

High school dropouts earn the most in mining (at $26.70 an hour), followed by utilities and forestry. Construction also comes in above average at a respectable $23.40 an hour — not bad considering it’s one of the industries with the highest concentrations of high school dropouts.

Women who dropped out of high school earn the most in finance (which includes bank branches) and real estate, while men make the most in mining and professional services (which includes waste management).

Education majors who don’t teach

How many working-age folks with teaching certificates are NOT teaching in the K-12 system? — D.B. in Flagstaff, Ariz.

Astute inquiry! While we don’t have data on certification, we can dig pretty deep on education majors.

Nationally, 31.5 percent of U.S. workers with teaching degrees were working outside the education sector in 2020, at least within prime teaching age (25 to 55). That’s the highest share we’ve ever seen. Comparable Census Bureau data go back to 2009, when the number was 28.7 percent.

Education majors are most likely to work in their chosen field at age 26, but attrition is high during their first years in the industry. Job flight stabilizes as teachers hit their 30s and 40s, but takes off again when they hit their 50s and soars at age 55, when long-serving public school teachers can take retirement benefits in some states.

An industry-leading 3 in 4 school administration and special-needs education majors make a career in education, a category we define as elementary and secondary schools, colleges, vocational schools, libraries and day cares. Meanwhile, just 56 percent of social science and history majors stick with it, as do 47.5 percent of physical education majors, a category that includes health education.

Lower-income states tend to retain teachers better than their high-income peers. Mississippi has the highest share of education majors who stick with the profession during their prime teaching years at 78 percent, followed by West Virginia, Louisiana and Arkansas. California has the lowest retention of any state at 61.4 percent but is easily surpassed by D.C. at 43.7 percent.

College grads who flounder

When we ran the numbers on education majors, we realized the same census data can answer a follow-up question: Which majors have the highest and lowest unemployment rates?

One surprisingly relevant answer? Education! Teaching and education administration majors have had the lowest unemployment rates in recent years during prime working age (25 to 55). They’re followed by construction and medical sciences, which includes nursing, public health, medical technicians and pre-med programs.

To be sure, education majors may appear to have unusually low unemployment due to seasonal factors. People are only counted as unemployed if they’re actively looking for work. Given schools’ shorter hiring seasons, it seems likely that teachers would only actively look for work a few months of the year. (We used an annual average here, because of data limitations.)

The most-unemployed majors may not surprise readers of our recent columns. Those much-regretted, lower-paying, shrinking humanities and arts degrees also seem to sentence graduates to spending more time looking for work. Fine arts majors have the highest unemployment, followed by humanities and liberal arts and the languages, both English and foreign.

Data limitations forced us to look at data from 2015 to 2019. Based on industry trends in unemployment, we expect the rough order of majors to remain similar, even if the numbers themselves probably will be lower across the board.

Given our recent discussion of college dropouts, it might be wise to remember that, regardless of your college major, grads are more likely to be employed (and to earn more!) than someone who didn’t graduate.

The best question we can’t answer

How many drag queens tear their ACLs [anterior cruciate ligaments] each year? With dips, duck walks, splits and other moves, ballroom competitions seem to put quite a lot of strain on the knees. — Leanne in Maryland

We’re relatively sure this isn’t tracked by our usual sources. But if anyone has data, we’d love to see it!

Hello, friends! The Department of Data has an endless appetite for your fun facts and interesting inquiries. What are you curious about? Do you want to know whether certain industries grow more under Republican or Democratic presidents? Or which cities have the most street sprawl? Or what most Americans do right before they fall asleep? Just ask!

If your question inspires a column, we’ll send an official Department of Data button and ID card. This week’s buttons, obviously, go to Holly, D.B. and Leanne. To get every answer and factoid in your inbox as soon as we publish, sign up here.

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