Online: Trending Now

Unique biweekly insights and news review
from Ray Schroeder, Senior Fellow at UPCEA

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!

A man (Ray Schroeder) is dressed in a suit with a blue tie and wearing glasses.

Ray Schroeder is Professor Emeritus, Associate Vice Chancellor for Online Learning at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) and Senior Fellow 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.

Other UPCEA Updates + Blogs

Crime in the Future: Lessons Learned from Hollywood

Although the timelines are rarely ever accurate, Hollywood has often expanded our minds to see what the future could bring us, ranging from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey predicting a future with artificial intelligence and Star Wars with robotics being commonplace, to The Simpsons predicting certain presidents. Back to the Future, The Jetsons, Blade…

Read More

Advocating for FAFSA Fixes and State Authorization Reciprocity | Policy Matters (May 2024)

Major Updates UPCEA Co-Signs Request to Congress on FAFSA Fix Proposal In a letter led by the American Council on Education (ACE), UPCEA joined with other organizations to seek legislation for crucial adjustments to the FAFSA process to enhance its efficiency and fairness. Key proposals include ensuring institutions are not held liable for discrepancies in…

Read More

From Degrees to Microcredentials: Higher Education Must Evolve to Embrace the Modern Economy

America’s appetite for four-year, 120-credit bachelor’s degrees has been declining for well over a decade. In addition, the National Student Clearinghouse recently released a report showing that undergraduate degree completion fell yet again. Bachelor’s degree graduates declined to their lowest level since 2015-16, with Associate’s degree graduates at their lowest level in ten years.     The same National Student Clearinghouse report showed that earning…

Read More

Who’s in the Driver’s Seat?

The saying “who’s in the driver’s seat” commonly refers to driving a car and the decision of whether one person should lead or if input is necessary. Similarly, the term “backseat driver” describes someone not in control attempting to influence or take charge. Both phrases suggest notions of control and ego. One could argue that…

Read More

Take Action on Proposed State Authorization Reciprocity Regulations | Policy Matters (April 2024)

Major Updates   Urgent: Take Action on Proposed State Authorization Reciprocity Regulations The Department of Education is set to introduce new regulations that could significantly alter state authorization reciprocity agreements, critically affecting online education and our students’ futures. Following the lack of consensus in recent negotiated rulemaking sessions, the forthcoming rules are expected to impose…

Read More

Bringing an Insider-Outsider Perspective to UPCEA’s Members

Shortly after pivoting twelve years ago from a deanship to a faculty position, I realized the only job better than being a dean was now being able to help other university leaders. A highlight of this career change has been visiting campuses as part of a consulting or accreditation team and conducting numerous solo consulting…

Read More

Whether you need benchmarking studies, or market research for a new program, UPCEA Consulting is the right choice.

We know you. We know the challenges you face and we have the solutions you need. We speak your language and have been serving leaders like you for more than 100 years. UPCEA consultants are current or former continuing and online higher education professionals who are experts in the industry—put our expertise to work for you.


UPCEA is dedicated to advancing quality online learning at the institutional level. UPCEA is uniquely focused on excellence at the highest levels – leadership, administration, strategy – applying a macro lens to the online teaching and learning enterprise. Its engaged members include the stewards of online learning at most of the leading universities in the nation.

We offers a variety of custom research options through a variable pricing model.


Click here to learn more.

The Nation's Top Universities Choose UPCEA Consulting

Informed decisions. Ideas that work. The data you need. Trusted by the top universities in the nation.