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The Jobs Blog: Stuck in the Middle
 

By Joseph Coombs  5/31/2012
 

The Great Recession and subsequent slow-growth recovery have brought renewed attention to the “haves vs. have-nots” argument. And while some of us are probably tired of hearing how much better the wealthiest 1 percent is faring over the other 99 percent of our population, it’s time to acknowledge that a similar discrepancy is playing out in the U.S. labor market.

This one has a twist, though. It’s true that many new jobs being created are knowledge-based, require advanced degrees and are beneficial for the upper-income realm of the workforce, but some low-skill, low-paying positions will also be in high demand in the next decade-plus: home health aides, retail workers and truck drivers among them.

That leaves a pretty big hole for the jobs in-between that require moderate levels of expertise and education. And those are the types of careers that have disappeared at alarming rates in recent years, said David Wilkins, vice president of research at California-based Taleo, a talent management consulting interest owned by Oracle.

They’re called “middle jobs” and include everything from film development to tax preparation, as well as many types of manufacturing jobs and some health care positions, such as X-ray technicians.

“X-ray techs were never under any kind of threat until recently,” Wilkins said. “That was a great job for many people to have. Now, because of technology, it’s easily exportable. These have become tradable jobs.”

Wilkins isn’t suggesting that we turn our backs on technological advancement. Mature companies, he said, have moved much of their “less intensive” work offshore or are relying on tech to fill the gaps, and that is a natural progression in any developed economy.

But it also means that many job seekers are staring down a rather dark tunnel when looking for employment.

Of the 30 fastest-growing positions from 2010 to 2020, 29 of them will require a bachelor’s or advanced degree--or a high school diploma or less--according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“You’re talking about high-tech or medical professions on one end, and on the other end, you’ve got day laborers and health care aides,” Wilkins said. “What does that leave? There’s nothing in the middle.”

Wilkins concedes that there is no easy solution to this problem. He suggestes that the private sector engage in more intensive research to determine the future market for these jobs and then work on policy initiatives that encourage people to consider these types of positions.

At least one nonprofit organization agrees with Wilkins and others who are concerned about the dearth of “middle jobs.” Washington, D.C.-based Achieve conducts an annual study that asks all 50 states and the District of Columbia whether they have adopted “standards, graduation requirements, assessments and accountability systems” aligned to the needs of two- and four-year colleges and employers of all types. As of 2011, 47 states and the District of Columbia had adopted high school academic standards in English and mathematics that are aligned with today’s collegiate and workplace expectations, according to Achieve.

However, not nearly as many states have created stringent graduation requirements and assessment systems that will prepare students better for the jobs that are out there, the organization said.

HR does have a role to play in helping people qualify for middle jobs, Wilkins said. Even during a time of heightened unemployment, it’s up to recruiters and other staffing specialists to take a different look at the job candidates that are coming through their companies’ doors, he said.

“There is widespread belief that with so many people looking for jobs, HR professionals can have the ‘pick of the litter’ when they’re filling a position,” he said. “This is not the case with high-skilled knowledge workers. They can find a job anywhere. We have to re-think the way we approach candidates. Instead of searching for the perfect person, maybe we select the best fit for the company, a person that we can ‘skill up’ to fit the job and prepare them for a critical role in the future.”

Joseph Coombs is SHRM’s workplace trends and forecasting specialist.

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