PHOENIX - Got a college degree? It may not matter if you're looking for work in Arizona.
A new report from the state Department of Administration shows three-fourths of the job openings expected over the next two years will require only a high school diploma - or less.
Aruna Murthy, director of the economic analysis for the agency, said that is higher than the national average. And the trend is for jobs that don't pay a lot is actually growing in Arizona.
Murthy figures employers will hire 8,769 cashiers, 8,413 waiters and waitresses and 8,158 food- preparation workers. And those are the top three categories, followed by retail sales, customer service representatives and clerks.
The trend raises a challenge for job-seeking recent college graduates - the state university system now graduates about 24,000 students a year and hopes to get to 30,000 by 2020 - who may be overqualified for the available positions.
"The state is in a legitimate chicken-and-egg scenario," said economist Dennis Hoffman of the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University.
"We desperately need more opportunities with employers that are 'higher margin' employers," he said - those that hire people who are more productive and who can demand higher salaries.
"One way to get those folks is to make them aware of the fact we have a lot of talent in this state ready and willing to work," Hoffman said.
"But you've got to get them here to employ the people we're producing," he continued. "If we don't have enough job opportunities here, the students we're educating in this state are going to leave."
Murthy's job forecast does not surprise Rick Myers, chairman of the Arizona Board of Regents.
He said about 25 percent of Arizonans older than 25 currently have at least a bachelor's degree, which suggests the university system is meeting the state's needs. But Myers said the state still needs to increase the number of college-educated Arizonans.
"I don't think if we educate more people it's going to mean we're going to have that many more people with college degrees working at McDonald's," he said.
Instead, Myers sees more college grads as a key to boosting the state's overall economy by attracting higher-paying jobs.
The most recent figures from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis put Arizona's per capita personal income at $35,979. That is 84 percent of the national average, and ranks Arizona 41st, down from 32nd five years ago.
Matthew Benson, press aide to Gov. Jan Brewer, said the Arizona Commerce Authority is working to find better-paying companies. But that goes back to the question of an educated workforce.
"You're only going to bring in those employers with a workforce that can slip into those jobs," he said.
Benson said one figure in Murthy's report shows the effort is paying off: The state expects a 14.2 percent increase in the number of biomedical engineers over the two-year period.
That, however, isn't going to move the needle much in terms of high-tech jobs: In pure numbers that 14.2 percent translates out to just 34 new biomedical engineers on top of the 239 now employed here.
Benson dismissed the question of whether Arizona college grads are going to find themselves overqualified for the jobs that are available.
Myers cited a direct link between wages and education. He said increasing the number of college graduates should get Arizona closer to the national average of more than 30 percent of the adult population with a degree instead of 25 percent, a move he said should directly correlate with higher income.
"Part of what we're trying to do is position us to where we have a chance to change the equation in Arizona," he said.
Murthy, however, said there is a larger debate about pushing as many people as possible to go to college. She said there is evidence the economy is actually going to need more people with technical skills - skills that do not require a four-year degree.
"It's a new age," she said. Murthy said there are data to show that there are many people in Arizona earning $50,000 or more with just a trade-school education.
Benson added that the job demand forecast looks the way it does because much of Arizona's economy is based the leisure and hospitality industry, which offers a lot of jobs at bars, restaurants and hotels that don't demand a lot of education.
Murthy said, though, that Arizona can't build an economy on that.
"We need to have some jobs on the lower end, the middle end and the higher end," she said.
Share of openings by educational requirements 2012-2014
Less than high school graduate 33.9%
High school diploma or equivalent 41.5%
Some college, no degree 0.5%
Postsecondary education that does not award degrees 3.4%
Associate's degree 4.1%
Bachelor's degree 12.6%
Master's degree 1.5%
Doctor or professional degree 2.4%
Source: Arizona Department of Administration
Total openings 2012-2014, both growth and replacement
Food preparation 8,158
Retail sales 7,733
Customer service reps 5,426
Office clerks 4,444
Laborers and material movers 4,283
Wholesale and manufacturing sales reps 3,149
Registered nurses 3,008
Managers of office support workers 2,697
Truck drivers 2,693
Janitors and cleaners 2,574
Counter attendants 2,532
Restaurant cooks 2,415
Source: Arizona Department of Administration