The findings have significant implications for a U.S. labor force that has grown increasingly polarized between high-wage and low-wage jobs, with the number of middle-income jobs shrinking in recent years. A sizable share of employment growth during the recovery has been in low-wage sectors, such as fast food and retail, whose workers have staged protests to demand higher pay and more consistent hours.
The health care industry can help bridge the divide between low- and high-paying jobs.
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"It can provide people with lower levels of education a career ladder and a path toward upward mobility," Ross says. For example, nursing assistants can rise to become registered nurses.
Education and earnings levels for health care jobs vary widely. About half of diagnostic technicians and registered nurses have either associate degrees or some college, and their median annual salaries are the highest, at $52,000 to $60,000.
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Licensed practical nurses, emergency medical technicians, paramedics and dental assistants typically have some college and earn $30,000 to $40,000.
Personal care aides and home health aides generally have high school diplomas and the lowest salaries — $21,000 to $25,000.