Middle skill jobs are most often defined as ones that require education or technical training beyond a high school diploma, but less than a four-year college degree. They exist across all industries, but most prominently in construction, manufacturing, and clerical work. Given the extra knowledge and skill they require, middle skill jobs typically pay more than the run-of-the-mill hourly job, and as such have long been a vehicle of upward social mobility. But several labor economists have noted a “hollowing out” of the middle skill job market in the United States over the past thirty years, pointing to declines in wages and employment in the middle of the labor market as evidence.
But that’s not the whole story.
While traditional middle skill jobs hold less opportunity today, there’s a new class of middle skill jobs where the exact opposite is true. These new jobs are in emerging or changing industries, require skills that few to seem to have, and have many openings going unfilled as a result. They represent a huge opportunity for today’s workforce. Below, we’re going to give you the rundown on today’s middle skill job market and tell you about five rapidly growing middle skill occupations that represent huge opportunities for today’s workforce.
Understanding the middle skill job market
Harry Holzer, a visiting fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institute, is an expert on the changing middle skill job market. He divides the middle skill job market into two sections: what he calls the “older middle” and the “newer middle.” Older middle skill jobs require some kind of technical proficiency, but typically using tools and processes that are now widely-understood, having been around for a while. As a result, many of these jobs can be outsourced or automated, hence why they’re gradually disappearing from the American economy.
Newer middle skill jobs, on the other hand, tend to require skills that are still quite rare, as they involve new or changing technologies fewer people are familiar with. Whereas the skills for older middle skill jobs are widespread enough for people to learn them on the job from a more experienced colleague, most employers don’t have anyone who can teach new hires how to do newer middle skill jobs -- job seekers need to have the skills in advance in order to get the job. Many successful candidates are earning technical certifications, associate degrees in relevant fields, and taking on other educational opportunities outside of the workplace. A great example would be a clerical worker learning a database management tool like Microsoft Access through an online course in order to enhance their employability.
The question of how big an opportunity new middle skill jobs become and who gets to take advantage will come down to training. As we alluded to earlier, on-the-job training was a common way to learn the necessary skills for older middle skill jobs. But given the propensity of today’s younger workers to switch jobs, many employers are cutting back on training and instead looking for candidates who can step in and do the job right away. After all, why pay to train someone who might be gone in a year? While that makes sense for individual employers in the short-term, Holtzer points out that this strategy has exacerbated a skill gap in the American workforce -- with no one offering training, there are fewer total people in the labor pool who can do these jobs. Unless employers recognize that and shift their thinking, middle skill job seekers will have to take initiative and find training themselves.
Now that you have the lay of the land, you’re probably wondering what exactly these new middle skill jobs are that workers need to know about. We’ve got you covered. Here are five examples of jobs likely to have a bright future in the “newer middle” economy.
5 high-growth middle skill jobs
Estimated number of positions in 2016: 206,300
Estimated growth by 2026: 13%
Baby Boomers are America’s largest generation, and 10,000 of them are retiring every single day. Increased age goes hand in hand with more medical care, which means more opportunity for the support staff that comprise a substantial portion of the healthcare industry. And as new laws and technologies bring change to the industry, the health insurance environment continues to increase in both size and complexity.
All of this means that tasks like correctly coding medical procedures, medications, and appointments -- as well as coordinating between providers, hospitals, insurance companies, and government agencies -- will continue to require more labor. Records technicians must exercise practiced, educated judgment calls on a daily basis in a complex and evolving system, which means their jobs will be difficult to automate or offshore.
Estimated number of positions in 2016: 2,927,600
Estimated growth by 2026: 41%
One of the primary differentiators between the “older middle” and “newer middle” skill jobs is that the latter requires some level of skill that can’t be outsourced to offshore workers and can’t be replicated by any type of automation. This doesn’t always mean technological skills though -- it can also mean a human touch or the ability to connect with others. That’s why home health aides are becoming more and more critical as our population grows older.
Personal care aides work with senior citizens and disabled people to provide a low level of constant care. Although some medical training is required, it is mostly limited to first aid and CPR certifications, as well as situation-specific training in dealing with Alzheimer’s, dementia, and specific disabilities. These jobs have a low barrier to entry, but are crucial to our economy -- and job openings are expected grow in huge numbers.
Estimated number of positions in 2016: 666,900
Estimated growth by 2026: 9%
The Great Recession severely impacted new construction and remodels as the market faced two primary pressures: a glut of housing and drastically-reduced financing. The construction industry was disproportionately impacted during that time, but things have slowly come around.
According to the Census Bureau, both new construction and remodels are steadily growing, even above projected estimates. Electricians are crucial for these kinds of projects. So whether it’s in roles focusing on commercial or residential construction, maintenance and repair, or remodeling, the future looks bright for the electrical field.
Estimated number of positions in 2016: 480,600
Estimated growth by 2026: 16%
As the economy continues to recover from the Great Recession, new construction continues to steadily increase. With so many new buildings go up, the economy has a need not just for manual laborers, but for specialists like plumbers as well. Job openings in the industry are expected to rise quickly in the coming years.
You may not think of plumbing as a high-tech, cutting edge job, but it’s quickly coming to resemble one. Plumbing technologies and tools have become more sophisticated, incorporating UV cameras to detect leaks and minimize collateral repair damage, drones and robots to crawl down pipes, and even x-rays in certain situations. As the level of technology increases for traditionally hands-on trades, the level of education required to be an effective tradesperson does as well. That, combined with the fact that these jobs would be extremely difficult to outsource or automate, makes plumbing a huge middle-skill opportunity.
Estimated number of positions in 2016: 404,800
Estimated growth by 2026: 6%
Welding has been ignored for quite some time, and is emphasized to a lesser degree than other traditional trades, such as plumbing and electrical work. But industry experts predict that of the 3.5 million manufacturing jobs the U.S. will need filled in the next ten years, many will go to welders. Widespread Baby Boomer retirement and increased focus on American manufacturing are some of the primary drivers behind this increase.
The newer middle is trending up
Each of the positions identified above requires postsecondary education -- typically some kind of certification, but not a four-year college degree -- and is expected to see a huge uptick in job openings. While the necessary training may be difficult to come by, applicants can rest assured that these positions are unlikely to be automated or outsourced, and will pay more than most hourly jobs. That makes them a huge opportunity for our workforce for the foreseeable future.