ENCORE POST: Three Guiding Beliefs to Address the Middle-Skills Mismatch


How can educators and parents move youths toward good careers with the minimum number of miscues and wrong turns?  We should adopt three guiding beliefs in how we help students think about careers and postsecondary education.

This question is extremely important because ongoing research tells us that the U.S. workforce continues to be plagued by a mismatch between the skills that workers need and the actual jobs that exist.  This workforce mismatch correlates to millions of people who are unable to find meaningful, self-sustaining work.

The National Skills Coalition (NSC) has just released an updated set of data related to high-skill jobs, middle-skill jobs and low-skilled jobs.   They have produced a national overview and then state-by-state middle-skill fact sheets, which you can find here (NSC State Policy Fact Sheets).

According to the NSC, a “middle-skill job” is one that requires education and training that is more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree.

According to the 2007 report, America’s Forgotten Middle Skills Jobs[i], the three categories are as follows:

  • “High-skill occupations are those in the professional/technical and managerial categories.
  • Low-skill occupations are those in the service and agricultural categories.
  • Middle-skill occupations are the others, including clerical, sales, construction, installation/repair, production, and transportation/material moving.”

Personal note: I don’t particularly like the term “middle-skill” because it seems to relegate these jobs to a second class status in comparison to jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree.  The reality is that many students who graduate from college or university have a good, broad-based education but few in-demand skills. For example, take a look at a previous post about how having some in-demand technical skills really makes a difference in employability for liberal-arts graduates.   The fact is that many people with middle-skill jobs are actually very highly skilled, they just don’t have as much time invested taking general education courses as college graduates do.

According to the NSC analysis, between the years 2014 and 2024,

  • Middle-skill jobs will make up 48% of all the job openings
  • High-skill jobs will make up 32% of the job openings
  • Low-skill jobs will make up 20% of the job openingsgraphic for post

Further, the NSC analysis points to a middle-skill gap in the current workforce, using data from the 2015 Bureau of Labor Statistics data set.

As of 2015, 53% of jobs in the U.S. were middle-skilled, but just about 42% of workers have these specific skills needed for these jobs.  That’s a serious under-supply in the middle-skill arena.

On the other hand, there is an oversupply of both high-skill workers and low-skill workers.  Because of this mismatch, some college-educated workers take jobs that don’t require their level of education.  And, many poorly educated workers can’t find even low-skilled work.

There won’t be a quick fix to this mismatch, and jobs continue to evolve quickly through the forces of automation and globalization.  The actual job market is a moving target.  But here are three beliefs that I think we can consider that might help students make better choices in thinking about careers and education.

  1. Every child should aim high, but not follow the crowd.

We should help each child (and our teachers) remember that aiming high means being well-educated so they be prepared for career and life success.  Being well-educated coming out of K-12 schools is non-negotiable, whatever level of postsecondary education and training you wish to pursue.

Aiming high does not always mean having to attend a four-year college or university. Conversely, we should also strongly encourage children to stretch themselves academically to pursue college or university if they have a clear career aspiration that requires that level of education.

Homer Hickam, the NASA engineer who grew up in coal-mining West Virginia and struggled with math is a wonderful example of a student who was driven to excellence by a deep career aspiration.  You can learn about his story in his memoir “Rocket Boys” and in the film “October Sky.”

  1. More students need to participate in AND complete postsecondary education and training that is attuned to real opportunities in our economy.

Right now, too few students enroll in postsecondary education and training at the middle-skill level, so we have an oversupply of low-skilled workers (poorly educated) and high-skilled workers (college educated).  We must increase exposure and understanding of all good career options and their correlated education and training options throughout a student’s middle and high school experience.  Of course, high quality pathway programs fulfill this need.

  1. Parents need to be part of this conversation, leveraging their desire for their child to have a good career and fulfilled life.

Without ever disparaging a child’s capabilities, we want to help parents understand that being over-educated and under-employed is not a good end result.  Parents should see themselves as successful parents by helping their child find a career path that is a good personal fit.  Almost all parents care deeply about their children, but can still be misguided by their own expectations and fears.  Some parents might need to let go of aspirations that are really about making up for their own mistakes or by the fear of being looked down upon by other parents if their child chooses not to go to college or university.  Conversely, other parents might need to raise their expectations for their child and not feel threatened that their child might outshine them or leave them behind by attaining a higher level of education or career success than they have.

Redefining Success

These three guiding beliefs are based on the idea of redefining success for individuals in modern America.  Success is much more than going to college or even getting a good career that pays well.  Real success is helping develop an individual’s God-given talents and aptitudes, and giving each person a way to meaningfully participate and contribute to our world.  This is how educators and parents should define success to better shape their role as adults.  This definition of success will also help the youth make better decisions about pursuing their education and a career.  Achieving this type of success is a life-long journey. Let’s help each child get the education they need to make a successful launch.

[i] Holzer, Harry J. & Lerman, Robert I. (2007), America’s Forgotten Middle Skills Jobs. Published by Skills to Compete Campaign, The Workforce Alliance, Washington, DC.  Retrieved at: http://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/31566/411633-America-s-Forgotten-Middle-Skill-Jobs.PDF

Brett Pawlowski is Executive Vice President of NC3T, the National Center for College and Career Transitions (www.nc3t.com). NC3T provides planning, coaching, technical assistance and tools to help community-based leadership teams plan and implement their college-career pathway systems and strengthen employer connections with education.

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