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Preparing America for middle-skill work

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Commentary
​Anthony Carnevale

Editor's note: This is an excerpt from an article in the December 2012/January 2013 edition of the Community College Journal, the bimonthly magazine of the American Association of Community Colleges.

Anthony Carnevale, executive director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, shares his views on the importance of middle-skill jobs to the U.S. economy, and the role community colleges play in putting students to work.

Q: Why are middle-skill jobs so important to growing the U.S. economy?

A: Almost a third—17 million out of 55 million—new job openings between 2010 and 2020 are going to require middle skills, as baby boomers retire and new jobs are created.

Middle-skill jobs are also important because they often pay middle-class wages. For example, 62 percent of middle-skill jobs pay $35,000 or more per year and 14 percent pay $75,000 or more. What’s even more striking is that middle-skill jobs can pay more than jobs for workers with bachelor’s degrees. For instance, 31 percent of entry-level associate-degree jobs and 27 percent of jobs requiring some form of licensure or certification pay more than entry-level BA positions.

Q: What makes community colleges the ideal institutions to train middle-skill workers?

A: Community colleges are ideally situated to provide both practical career and technical preparation as well as general learning. The mix of general academic learning and workforce preparation that is the unique signature of the nation’s community colleges can lead to both further education and learning on the job. Moreover, the community colleges’ mix of general competencies and workforce development allows students to live more fully in their time by becoming more active citizens and successful workers.

The inescapable reality is that ours is a society based on work. Those who are not equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to get, and keep, good jobs are denied the genuine social inclusion that is the real test of full citizenship. Those denied the education required for good jobs tend to drop out of the mainstream culture, polity and economy. It is crucial that community colleges retain their workforce mission. If community college educators cannot fulfill their economic mission to help youths and adults become successful workers, they also will fail in their cultural and political missions to create good neighbors, good citizens and self-possessed individuals who can live fully in their time.

Community colleges have for decades been doing what middle-skill workers need now: retraining the long-term unemployed, matching new graduates’ skill sets to job opportunities through internships and mentoring, serving regional geographic localities and training-up nontraditional students. These things form the backbone of the community college mandate.

The community colleges’ dual educational and workforce development missions provide institutes with a lot of room to grow, as well as an opportunity to flex their muscles as they already stand head and shoulders above the rest in the movement toward truly comprehensive postsecondary institutions.

Q: Why does the U.S. have difficulty recruiting and training workers to fill important middle-skill jobs?

A: The United States has, for most of its history, been particularly adept at educating and training professionals via baccalaureate and post-baccalaureate educational programs of study. For example, the U.S. ranks second internationally in its share of workers with bachelor’s degrees. At the same time, until the growth of the community colleges, U.S. postsecondary institutions have been mediocre in preparing young people for middle-skill jobs. The United States presently ranks 16th internationally in its share of workers with sub-baccalaureate degrees. Including postsecondary certificates would increase our ranking, but only to 11th among industrialized nations.

Our underinvestment in sub-baccalaureate education is now more important than ever, because the need for postsecondary institutions to provide entry-level training for middle-skill workers is relatively new. Before the 1980s, employers provided entry-level training to the vast majority of middle-skill workers, largely in blue-collar occupations. In the 1970s, almost 70 percent of American workers had a high school education or less and more than half of those workers earned middle-class wages, i.e., between $35,000 and $75,000 annually (in 2008 dollars). Since then, the entry-level requirement for middle-skill jobs has risen from high school to “some postsecondary education and training.”

Today, we largely rely on community colleges to provide entry-level training for the sub-baccalaureate workforce, not only in factories and foundries, but in healthcare institutions and white-collar offices. Middle-skill jobs now require more formal workforce preparation in order to make entry-level workers “training ready” as they begin their careers.

In order to meet these new requirements, we need a new paradigm of education and work that gives young people formal postsecondary qualifications to get through the door to jobs that pay, as well as provide access to state-of-the art technology and valuable work experience. In addition, community colleges will continue to be called on to help workers upgrade their skills as they move through their careers.

Finally, there is a cultural dimension to the missing middle between high school and four-year college. Perhaps because employers did the entry-level training for so long in the United States, the American education system has been built around the four-year bachelor’s degree. For institutional and cultural reasons, the “college is a BA” mantra continues. Students march in lockstep into four-year institutions, many without any clue of how they will attach to the labor market at the end of their four to six years. This blind homage paid to the prestigious BA job is largely responsible for the difficulty in recruiting and training workers, along with the lack of information about how viable and upwardly mobile middle-skill jobs can be. Even in this recession, in spite of high unemployment, we find that 2 million jobs persistently go unfilled for want of skilled workers.

Q: When the dam finally breaks and the nation’s baby boomers retire, what can we expect? Paint us a picture.

A: Baby boomers are staying in the workforce longer than expected. Nevertheless, between 2010 and 2020, there will be 20 million new jobs in addition to 33 million job openings resulting from baby boomer retirements. Certain occupations will be more affected than others. For example, one-third of all nurses are over 55 years old. Healthcare is one-fifth of the economy, and these professions require several years of classroom education and several years of on-the-job training to be work-ready.

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