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Unique biweekly insights and news review
from Ray Schroeder, Director of the National Council for Online Education

The Forgotten Middle-Skilled

Nearly half of all college graduates are reported to be underemployed in their first job and a third in non-STEM fields remain underemployed after five years. There are more college graduates available than college-requisite jobs in the marketplace at this time. But, there are many more openings than qualified applicants among middle-skill job positions.

Burning Glass and Strada Institute last year reported that 43% of recent college graduates are underemployed in their first job, and 29% of all college graduates (including those in STEM fields) remained underemployed after five years. The report indicates that the underemployed earned $10,000 less a year than one might expect for their credential. 

Just as there are more college graduates looking for jobs than there are appropriate jobs, so too there are more high school graduates than there are jobs requiring only the high school diploma. But, the middle-skilled applicants – that is workers with some post-secondary education or training, but not a baccalaureate – are finding a sweet spot in marketplace where they are in demand, with fewer applicants than jobs available.

This phenomenon is persistent. The National Skills Coalition has compiled data, state-by-state, describing the job market for college, high school and middle-skilled credentialed workers. Nationally, nearly half of the job openings expected in through 2024 will be middle-skilled jobs. 

Boston University Professor and author of “Work and Its Future”, Ellen Ruppel Shell, says the vast majority of future jobs will not require a college education. When asked by US News if a bachelor’s degree is going to be necessary in the future of work, she replied in part: “For some people, absolutely. The problem is that many people are disadvantaged when they start. So they are not in a position to graduate or to benefit as much from the experience as people who are wealthier. They also come out at a great disadvantage, often with extreme debt. So it really depends. College shouldn’t be a blanket recommendation.”

So, how are we serving the middle-skilled workforce? These workers include skilled health care workers, many low-to-mid management positions, networking specialists, and skilled technologists in a vast array of occupations that often require certifications, but not formal degrees. Just as with all workers in today’s marketplace, their jobs are shifting with the advent of smarter technologies and networks. As the jobs shift, so too do the requisite training, credentials and skills.

Most successful colleges and universities are already carefully tracking and adjusting to the needs of employers for graduates in the fields where they offer degrees. But, are we putting equal emphasis on tracking and projecting the needs of prospective students who will enter the middle-skills fields with certificates, micro-credentials, and other non-degree certifications from our institutions? A significant portion of these students may even be degree holders (perhaps even from your own institution) who have become tired of underemployment and are now seeking more fulfillment and higher salaries in the middle-skills job marketplace.

The workforce is changing and with it the skills that will be needed. We are on the cusp of the “fourth industrial revolution.”  It is drawing on advanced computing, innovative networking, and associated technologies to blur the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres. Lori Kletzer writes in Harvard Business Review: “With robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, what we call automation seems poised to take on a greater share of high-productivity jobs and a range of tasks that were previously the domain of humans. These are tasks requiring problem solving, decision making, and interaction within a less-than-fully-predictable environment. Automation of this sort includes self-driving cars and diagnosing disease.”

Now is the time for us to more carefully consider the changing workforce and where we can provide meaningful certifications and credentialing to students who are preparing for the fourth industrial revolution.

Of course, I will continue to track the developments in emerging trends, technologies, pedagogies and practices, Continuing and Online Education Update blog by UPCEAYou can have the updates sent directly to your email each morning  – no advertising, no spam!

Ray Schroeder 2016 Summit for Online Leadership

Ray Schroeder is Professor Emeritus, Associate Vice Chancellor for Online Learning at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) and Senior Fellow, and Founding Director of the National Council for Online Education at UPCEA. Each year, Ray publishes and presents nationally on emerging topics in online and technology-enhanced learning. Ray’s social media publications daily reach more than 12,000 professionals. He is the inaugural recipient of the A. Frank Mayadas Online Leadership Award, recipient of the University of Illinois Distinguished Service Award, the United States Distance Learning Association Hall of Fame Award, and the American Journal of Distance Education/University of Wisconsin Wedemeyer Excellence in Distance Education Award 2016.

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