Points of View

How do we connect students to ‘middle skills’ opportunities?

Alex Andrews

So-called “middle-skills” jobs – those that require education beyond high school but less than a college degree – offer solid income and make up half of the nation’s employment opportunities. And yet, efforts to help students explore these careers and training are only now starting to gain traction, according to an analysis by The 74.


The report highlights efforts by educators and business leaders to expose students to the middle-skills professions. One example cited by The 74 was a collaboration by Lansing Community College, Consumers Energy and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that produced 124 new power-line workers over 2½ years.


Despite such successes – and the wide availability of middle-skill jobs – the report suggests more effort needs to be made to promote these career paths. According to the National Skills Coalition, middle-skill jobs make up 53 percent of the labor market, while only 43 percent of the country’s workers are trained to that level.


Weighing the benefit and cost of college

Advocates for the middle-skills workforce argue that students need to understand a four-year degree is a great option but not the only way to succeed in the modern economy.


Even as college enrollment fell in recent years, the return on investment for a college degree remains attractive and significant – but only for those students who complete their degree.


“Dropouts get all the downsides and none of the benefits of the system,” Jeff Strohl, director of research at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, told The 74. “Your chances of accessing the middle class — the idea of education as the great equalizer — are taken away.” 


Middle-skills credentialing is one option to address gaps, and advocates say the key is showing students the career paths that are available in such sectors as health care, information technology, law enforcement and skilled trades.


Exploring opportunities

While employers note difficulty filling middle-skills openings, there is some disagreement over what is causing the shortage – a skills gap from insufficient training, a wage gap where pay fails to attract applicants, or a misalignment aggravated by emerging technology. What is clear is that students need to learn about their options. Talent 2025 sees evidence locally that a portion of the difficulty lies in all three. Greater engagement with education and workforce organizations by individual employers leads to stronger talent pipelines for these employers.


One such initiative cited by The 74 was YouthForce NOLA, a New Orleans nonprofit that provides job exposure and training, helping students as young as ninth grade experience a wide variety of career options. 


For example, YouthForce NOLA collaborates with Ochsner Health System, one of Louisiana’s largest employers, by sponsoring internships. This allows students to observe operations, learn to make sutures, and attend presentations by medical workers who describe the education and responsibilities their jobs require.


“We have young people who are increasingly disconnected, we have jobs and jobs and jobs that are unfilled,” said Cate Swinburn, president of YouthForce NOLA. “So we’ve got to build the bridges to make sure these kids get their jobs.”