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What are middle skills?

In "The Importance of Middle-Skill Jobs" (Issues, Fall 2016), my colleague Alicia Sasser Modestino provides a good review of labor market trends. Her focus on middle-skill jobs is especially important given persistent and widespread concerns regarding prospects for the middle class in the United States. A number of points are worth considering further.

The concepts of middle-skill jobs and middle-class jobs have no official or standard definitions and the ways the two concepts are used often refer to somewhat different groups of jobs. Also, the education levels of the workers are often used to define the skill levels of the jobs they hold, but it would be better to define the skill requirements of job tasks independently of worker credentials. Although it is likely that most middle-skill workers are matched to middle-skill jobs, and vice-versa, defining job requirements based on worker characteristics makes it more difficult to investigate whether there is any mismatch between workers and jobs.

Most definitions of middle-skill jobs include those discussed in the article, such as skilled trades, higher-level clerical and administrative support occupations, technical jobs, some sales jobs (e.g., insurance agent, wholesale sales representative), and a diverse group of associate professional and similar jobs, such as teacher, social worker, nurse, paralegal, police detective, and air traffic controller, among many others. Although most of these jobs are likely to support a middleclass lifestyle and personal identity, the degree to which this is the case will depend on whether one's definition of middle class emphasizes earnings, job education requirements, or other job characteristics, such as freedom from close supervision, as well as the type of household to which an individual belongs (e.g., single individual, two-earner couple, single parent). Likewise, there are jobs that are generally considered less-skilled whose pay may be within the range considered middle class, such as long-haul truck driver. Such jobs were even more common prior to the decline of manufacturing production jobs and unionization rates that began in the late 1970s, a fact that attracted renewed attention recently in political discussions. All of which is to say that there are strong relationships between workers' education and training, job skill requirements, job rewards (both material and nonmaterial), and social class, but that these concepts are not identical and their relationships are not one-to-one.

The author makes a significant point regarding the future of middle-skill jobs, most of which are presumably middle class. A large literature in labor economics argues that computer technology and automation are eliminating such jobs, driving inequality growth. However, the article indicates that the share of all jobs that are middle-skill has not changed recently, although a greater share of such jobs may require some college. These trends are important to monitor.

It is also important to understand that occupational change in the United States and other advanced economies has been more gradual than often recognized and has not accelerated appreciably in recent years, despite widespread belief that the diffusion of information technology is radically altering the nature of work. Moreover, official projections suggest continued gradual change in the occupational structure in the next 10 years. In addition, retirements and ordinary turnover will create vacancies for new job seekers even within occupations that will decline as a proportion of workforce. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that between 2014 and 2024 there will be fewer than 10 million net new jobs created, but more than 35 million openings because of such replacement needs.

Finally, research shows there is a persistent tendency among observers to confuse cyclical weaknesses in overall demand with structural changes in the labor market. Concerns regarding technological unemployment spiked during the Great Depression and post-war recessions, but dissipated after economic growth rebounded and unemployment fell to normal levels. The extent of technological unemployment tends to be overestimated while the role of aggregate demand insufficiency is underestimated. The United States and other countries do not need to look to the future for a possible jobs crisis; they have experienced a jobs crisis since the beginning of the financial crisis in 2008. Raising education levels among young cohorts is necessary to keep up with technological change that is steadily but gradually altering the structure of employment. However, more effective macroeconomic policies can have a quicker and broader impact on the job prospects of middle- and less-skilled workers, as the strong growth of the late 1990s demonstrated.


Department of Sociology and Anthropology Northeastern University


Please note: Some tables or figures were omitted from this article.
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Title Annotation:FORUM
Author:Handel, Michael J.
Publication:Issues in Science and Technology
Article Type:Letter to the editor
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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