The Yardstick

Reaping the fruits of education in metro Washington

May 31, 2012 | Tags: D.C., development, economy, education, inequality, jobs, maryland, region forward, social justice, Virginia

This month, metro Washington joins the rest of the country in graduating thousands of students with degrees in higher education, which plays an integral role in helping the region’s economy thrive.

As recently as 2009, according to statistics compiled by MWCOG, 47% of residents over the age of 25 held a Bachelor’s degree, compared to 20% in the rest of the country. Additionally, 23% of residents in the same age group held a Masters Degree, Professional Degree, or Ph.D. These figures make our region one of the most educated in the entire nation.

The region’s ability to draw in talent from higher education institutions across the country and around the world has also contributed to its strong professional services sector, which attracts and enables businesses to locate in metro Washington. Thriving sectors in the economy include bioengineering (e.g. the human genome project), defense, hospitality, and information technology.

Furthermore, these trends have continued both with and without the help of the federal government. In an interview with Dr. Stephen Fuller, Director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University, he noted that the migration of young students to the region accelerated during the recession. Due to higher turnovers in federal employment, this highly educated workforce has had significant access to employment both within and outside the federal government, including Verizon, the Great Seneca Life Sciences Center in Montgomery County, and the Dulles Tech Corridor in Loudoun County.

However, these trends have also brought in a number of key challenges. According to Dr. Fuller, because of its overemphasis on higher education, the region faces shortages of workers in specialized areas that do not require advanced degrees. Metro, for example, has planned to hire over 1,000 workers to help operate and maintain the new Silver Line extension. This shortage of specialized workers could force employers to search beyond the region for potential employees. The region also faces a severe, east-west divide in the number of people holding college degrees. Meanwhile, residents that lack access to either specialized training or higher education continue to struggle to move up in the current economy.

To address these challenges, metro Washington must seek ways to improve economic mobility for all of its residents, such as by improving our high school graduation rates and access to higher education and specialized training, developing employment sectors that require less specialization, and helping young graduates link their degrees to stable employment within their fields. With developments such as the Economic Growth and Competitiveness for metropolitan Washington, this region continues to prepare itself to grow in the face of looming challenges in the future.