The Promise of Middle-Skill Occupations

By Stone, James R.; Blackman, Orville et al. | Techniques, May 2010 | Go to article overview

The Promise of Middle-Skill Occupations

Stone, James R., Blackman, Orville, Lewis, Morgan, Techniques

High-skill, high-wage, high-demand occupations" is the rhetoric most often employed when describing the aim of workforce development, not only for Perkins-funded programs, but also for many high school reform efforts. The assumption is that all other occupations are "low skill, low wage." Phrases like "high skill, high wage" conjure up visions of technology-driven occupations that demand baccalaureate degrees or higher, intensive mathematics preparation, and the like. In reality, many states define a high-skill occupation as a job requiring any post-high school education; this may include anything from related work experience to a doctorate. High wage is defined as anything above the median for all occupations. This means jobs that may pay between $30,000 and $40,000 per year are considered high wage. In short, the phrase "high skill, high wage" tends to blur important distinctions in the labor market, distinctions that especially matter when thinking about potential foci for career and technical education (CTE) programs.

Labor market economists argue that it is difficult to fit occupations into a few skill categories, but most will agree that there are at least three, not two (Hölzer and Lerman, 2009). In this schema, highskill occupations are those in the professional/technical and managerial categories. Low-skill occupations are in the traditional, in-person service and agricultural categories. The rest are middle-skill occupations. As labor market economists define them, middle-skill occupations have three important characteristics:

* They require education or training beyond the high school diploma, but less than a bachelor's degree. This includes associate degrees, vocational certificates and diplomas, significant on-the-job training, apprenticeships, previous work experience or some college (Council on Competitiveness, 2008).

* They are not easily outsourced (Kaleba and Mayo, 2008). By contrast, high-skill professional occupations are increasingly being outsourced along with low-skill and routinized production jobs. Sarosh Kuruvilla of Cornell University's Industrial and Labor Relations School has noted that, "Not only are wellpaid jobs moving from Wall Street to Bangalore, but medical research jobs, including those in radiology, drug discovery and testing, and clinical trials, also are moving to India" - as quoted in Crawford, 2007. According to Kuruvilla, high-skill U.S. occupations in several other industries also are being outsourced. "These industries include engineering services - for a number of different industries, but particularly in aerospace and civil aviation - software research and development, and in animation."

* They are projected to provide the largest number of total job openings through 2016 (see Figure 1; Farr and Shatkin, 2006).

It is this last point that generates a lot of confusion. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics provides many kinds of analyses of labor market trends. Its most cited statistic is "fastest growing occupations." Many high-skilled occupations are among the fastest growing. The challenge in focusing on this statistic is that it depends on the denominator. That is, if there are 100 people working today in Occupation A and projected growth will add 50 people to that total, we may say that Occupation A's growth rate is 50 percent. If Occupation B currently employs 1,000 people and is expected to add 100 more, its growth rate is only 10 percent - but it is adding double the number of new jobs as Occupation A.

This second statistic - actual projected job openings - is the most useful when thinking about the future workplace and its implications for CTE and workforce development. For example, employment for biomedical engineers, a high-skill occupation, is projected to grow by 72 percent in the next decade, an extraordinary rate of increase. However, that translates into approximately 12,000 new jobs. By contrast, the job of medical assistant - a middle-skill occupation - is expected to grow by a more modest 34 percent, but it will add approximately 164,000 new jobs. …

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