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The Number Of Health Care Workers With Low Education Levels Is Rising ― But Their Wages Aren't

About half of the health care workers in the St. Louis area have less than a bachelor's degree.

The number of health care workers with lower levels of education is on the rise here but for the most part, their salaries are not.

That puts the St. Louis region in line with the national trend, according to a new report released on Thursday by the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program.

The analysis relied on U.S. census data from the 100 largest metro areas, including St. Louis. The researchers found that most health care workers with an associate degree or less are employed in one of ten occupations, so the report focused on those. They are:

  • Nursing, psychiatric and home health aides
  • Registered nurses
  • Personal care aides
  • Licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses
  • Health practitioner support technologists and technicians
  • Medical assistants
  • Dental assistants
  • Diagnostic related technologists and technicians
  • Clinical laboratory technologists and technicians
  • Emergency medical technicians and paramedics

You can find a detailed description of each job category in Appendix A of the Brookings report (it starts on p.20).

The report's lead author, Brookings fellow Martha Ross, said health care workers with the least education ― such as personal care aides, and home health aides ― also tend to have the lowest wages.

"Many of these workers are in the working poor category, meaning that they earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level,” Ross said.

Ross said in St. Louis, almost one-third of health care workers with less than a bachelor’s degree fell into the “working poor” category, based on their household income. For a family of four in 2011, that meant earning less than $44,700.

Credit Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program
Unlike low-education workers in other professions, health care workers with less than a bachelor's degree are predominantly female.

According to the report, the number of jobs held by St. Louis health care workers with less than a bachelor's degree rose by 23 percent in the decade starting in 2000, half the nationwide increase of 46 percent.

Karen Roth is the director of research for the St. Louis Area Business Health Coalition, an advocacy group that wasn't involved in the Brookings report. Roth was struck by one of the findings in particular: some of the occupations with the largest job growth also saw the biggest decline in earnings.

For example, over the past decade, the number of personal care aides with less than a bachelor's degree almost tripled nationwide and almost doubled in St. Louis. Nationally, their median wages fell by 7 percent. In St. Louis, that decrease was 25 percent. "That concerned me," Roth said.

Roth said when jobs have low wages but lots of responsibilities, that leads to high turnover rates, "something that has plagued the medical profession for a long time," and can lead to poor health care outcomes.

Follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience