Moving on up? Study finds middle-skill jobs are not created equal

Middle-skill job placement isn't enough for today's workforce training programs. A new study says that career outcomes are a better metric for success.

The conventional wisdom that landing a middle-skill job will guarantee stable wages and career mobility leads to an incomplete picture of work in the new economy. Data is filling in the rest of the frame. It reveals that middle-skill jobs and the long-term career prospects for those who have them have changed.

Through its analysis of nearly 4 million job résumés centered on four leading middle-skill employment sectors, a report from Jobs for the Future, Burning Glass Technologies and Lumina Foundation suggests that workforce development in the United States should undergo a recalibration.

Jobs for the Future examines how middle-skill jobs can lead to different outcomes.
Image – Jobs for the Future

When is a Job Just a Job — And When Can it Launch a Career? The Real Opportunities of Middle-skill Work makes the argument that stakeholders should focus on long-term careers over job placement. Successful workers who get their foot in the door in a middle-skill job after training is a reliable metric and is self-evident of a program’s success. But like real life, what follows after this initial victory is more important.

Do workers have the skills to move up a career ladder? Are there certifications that signal when and how they can advance? It depends on which sector they choose. The study says that understanding the nuances of middle-skill pathways in information technology, healthcare, business and manufacturing is essential for guiding workers to careers that can withstand technological and economic disruptions.

JFF calls it the “Opportunity Framework” and stakeholders looking at middle-skill jobs through this perspective may change their approach to creating skilled workers. JFF suggests that career advancement is a more valuable metric for evaluating whether a training program can deliver on its promise of middle-class earnings.

For their report, JFF and Burning Glass distilled data from millions of anonymized résumés and reassembled it into four easy-to-grasp fictional narratives. Their characters illustrate how middle-skill jobs can lead to different career outcomes.

Middle-skill workers' career pathways are distilled into four distinct characters in a JFF report.
JFF based its characters on the real-life data of millions of middle-skill workers. Image – JFF

Jessica, Zach, Nicole and Anthony’s stories have the same starting point: they are high school graduates from low-income neighborhoods. Their career decisions after high school determined how much they earn and whether they have a chance of promotion after five years of employment.

By taking a longer view, JFF and Burning Glass break down entry-level middle-skill work to “lifetime jobs,” “springboard jobs,” or “static jobs.”

In their narratives, Jessica goes into nursing, a role in which she will have her entire life. Zach and Nicole choose careers in Human Resources and information technology respectively. They have the luxury of industry-recognized certifications to help them move up a career ladder. Anthony gets a job as a machine operator and is subject to the whims of a volatile economy.

Middle-skill jobs in four sectors are broken down into areas of career advancement.
Source – JFF/ Burning Glass Technologies

Not surprisingly, the data which informed these characters’ stories also portends a predictable journey for them. Jessica must attain licensing to become a Licensed Nurse Practitioner and consider a future as a Registered Nurse if she wants to secure better wages. Zach and Nicole’s earnings are dependent on the continuous upgrading of skills and obtaining certifications. While Anthony, whom the study’s authors said did not take a course in CNC machine operation, is laid off and must manage with low-skilled and low-paying retail work to earn a paycheck.

So why take a look at middle-skill jobs through these perspectives? The economic opportunities afforded to workers who do not go to four-year colleges are changing.

While the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce says there are 30 million jobs with median wages above $55,000 for workers without bachelor’s degrees, the prospects of some of these career pathways are clouded because of technological advancements.

Some middle-skill jobs have an indefinite future because technology is enhancing the tasks that are required. Employers that are taking advantage of automation and artificial intelligence will expect their workforce to have up-to-date training to use them.

Nicole’s career in information technology will require that she attain credentials which demonstrate her subject knowledge. The industry has developed the tools for IT workers to search and earn certifications, like CompTIA and Burning Glass Technologies’ Cyber Seek platform, which details job openings and credential requirements. If Nicole was unhappy with her earnings and potential for advancement, she can determine what she needs and can take her talents elsewhere with new certifications.

JFF’s authors also highlight the jobs which cannot be automated, at least not yet. The demand for nurses, dental hygienists and other human-intensive labor in healthcare is rising because of the aging population of industrial nations. Jessica’s career pathway in nursing is secure from automation but has built-in limitations. She’ll never command a salary that registered nurses get regardless of how long she remains as a nurse practitioner.

Middle-skill work in manufacturing.
Photo – Shutterstock

While Anthony, whose story reflects how many Americans once secured middle-class wages, is at risk to both economic and technological forces. After being laid off from his manufacturing job, he must either go back to school or continue working in dead-end retail to support his family.

RELATED STORY: Manufacturing credentials missing the mark as employers value experience

He is ultimately trapped in a cycle of low wage jobs and underemployment, much like a majority of workers without advanced skills in the new economy. If Anthony was able to learn CNC-controlled manufacturing skills, there is no guarantee a job would be there for the taking if another severe economic downturn were to occur.

For lawmakers and educators, it’s easy to lump together “middle-skill” jobs and dedicate resources to training people to take on these roles where there is a current labor shortage.

Trucking has been a middle-skill job that can secure middle-class wages. But how long will truckers be in demand before driverless technology takes over?
Photo – Shutterstock

For example, the Trump administration is investigating whether to roll back industry regulations to allow drivers between the age of 18-20 to become semi-truck drivers. Connecting young people to well-paying jobs immediately after high school is a good idea and policymakers could attack the problem further with grants for trucking schools. However, advancements in driverless technology could render the investment obsolete within the next generation’s prime working years.

JFF recommends that policymakers use data to determine within the Opportunity Framework whether job training programs are effective in connecting workers to static jobs or sustainable careers. That could mean more investment in IT-certification training programs or increased support for advanced manufacturing at the community college level.

Training programs which have found success in targeting low-income and underserved communities could use the Opportunity Framework to redefine their mission and align their curriculum closer to the industry they serve.

This evolution has occurred at programs like JVS SoCal’s BankWork$. The program was created to train entry-level bank tellers but has since incorporated new roles that lead to long-term careers.

Utilizing data, such as JFF and Burning Glass have done with résumés, will be essential for governments to analyze and allocate resources to effective programs that ensure workers have access to skills. Understanding the different pathways middle-skill careers can take will also help workers make informed decisions about their postsecondary education.

The report shows that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for middle-skills training. Every program should be evaluated based on career outcomes because the jobs that people take on today may not exist in the next 10-20 years. And technology will create jobs that have no job training component in the public realm.

Securing a middle-class income in the 21st century will be dependent on the skills workers can build on throughout their lifetimes. It is up to stakeholders to guarantee they have access to programs that can adapt with the times.

To read the entire report from JFF, Burning Glass Technologies and Lumina Foundation: click here.

Join the Conversation: Read the report and tell us if JFF is right on the money about emphasizing career outcomes in job training programs on our Facebook page.