Since I arrived in 2015, there has been much data presented and information shared about the tightening labor market in the St. Louis MSA, and how this issue is presenting problems for many employers across the Region in finding workers with needed skills and education. By most measures, the national and regional economies have fully recovered from the great recession and are on a steady growth trajectory. However, directly correlated to this recovery is a shortage of labor that is creating issues for many employers, even to the extent of becoming a barrier for expanding product and related employment within their organizations.
Among higher education and workforce officials, there is quite the buzz around the problems associated with the need for “middle-skill” jobs at the national level. According to the National Skills Coalition, “middle-skill” jobs are defined as those jobs which require education beyond high school but not a four-year degree, such as an associate’s degree, certificate, or industry recognized credential. But for many community leaders and the general public in St. Louis, what exactly does the nomenclature of “middle- skill” mean? Do middle-skill jobs equate to high wage jobs and do such jobs meet employer needs? Most importantly, how do we begin to tackle the problem of attracting high school graduates and adult learners into these important occupations?
In reality, the concept of middle-skill jobs has been around for some time, and is transitioning as time progresses. Holzer (2015) does an excellent job in a research brief in defining middle-skill jobs and how they are moving into new industry sectors due to several environmental factors. In general, many of the “older” middle-skill jobs are declining due to forces such as digital technologies and globalization, while the “newer” middle-skill jobs are rapidly gaining ground in numbers of jobs for employers and increased skills and education for the employee. Today, disciplines associated with health care, mechanical maintenance, advanced manufacturing, IT, automotive service, construction trades and bio-sciences are excellent examples of what aligns with the St. Louis MSA in the middle-skill job arena.
According to National Skills Coalition data (2012), the demand for middle-skill jobs is strong and will remain strong in the future. In fact, 53% of job openings by skill level in Missouri will be in middle-skill jobs through 2020. There is currently a gap in such jobs in this State, as middle-skill jobs account for 54% of Missouri’s labor market, but only 47% of the state’s workers are trained to the middle-skill level. This statistical gap, combined with a rapidly graying workforce, will increase significantly if educational institutions and state and federal policies do not align in the near future to address this significant issue.
Today’s middle-skill jobs equate to high wages, and St. Louis Community College and the community need to unite to educate the public of the great career opportunities that exist for high school graduates and adult learners. According to Dr. Anthony P. Carnevale, Director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, 40% of middle-skill jobs pay more than $55,000 a year, and 14% pay more than $80,000 per year (by comparison, the median salary for young adults with a bachelor’s degree is $50,000) (Selingo, 2017).
The work of the College’s Strategic Plan – Initiative 4 (Aligning Programming with Workforce Needs) is well underway as we continue to interface with employers to determine the type of education and skills their employees need. The College will soon begin working through a sector strategy by either utilizing current sector studies or, in the event such studies do not exist in certain areas, invite representatives from different industry groups (i.e., IT or manufacturing) to listen to their workforce needs. In addition, we are in the process of working with our K – 12 and other higher education partners to deploy career pathway strategies that align and integrate education, job training, counseling and support services to create seamless pathways to postsecondary credentials and employment. Finally, we will work with State and Local elected officials to shed light on this issue and take action to assist in developing Policy that aligns training and education efforts with area needs.
At St. Louis Community College, we have 90 career and technical education programs that are geared to prepare students for careers in a wide variety of fields. We look forward to working with our educational, workforce and industry partners to address “Missouri’s forgotten middle” in the years to come!
Jeff L. Pittman, Ph.D.
Holzer, Harry (2015), Job Market Polarization and U.S. Worker Skills: A Tale of Two Middles.
NCS Analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics by State, (2012) and American Community Survey Data (2012).
Selingo, J. (2017). Wanted: Factory Workers, Degree Required. The New York Times.