School of Education News

Study finds far fewer middle-skill jobs in U.S. than estimated

July 25, 2018
by Wisconsin Center for Education Research communications

Significantly fewer “middle-skill” jobs exist in the United States than previously estimated, according to new research from the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at UW–Madison.

Airplane tech
Repair and maintenance workers are examples of the small
percentage of jobs that require training beyond high
school -- but less than a bachelor’s degree. 
Using a new skills index based on federal data, the study finds that 16 percent of all jobs require training beyond high school but less than a bachelor’s degree, compared to previous estimates of one-third to more than one-half of total employment.

The new publication, based on 2016 data, finds these jobs are highly concentrated in a small number of occupations, such as first-line supervisors of office and administrative support workers, and maintenance and repair workers.

“My estimates show that one in five jobs that require less than a bachelor’s degree is in a relatively skilled occupation,” says Matías Scaglione, a senior researcher at the School of Education’s Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions. “In contrast, four in five jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree are in skilled occupations.

“This large difference should be a warning sign for those investing in career pathways associated with so-called middle-skill jobs, as well as for states, community colleges and workforce organizations that invest in job training programs.”

At the core of the estimates’ discrepancy are competing approaches to defining and isolating a quantitative measurement of skills. Scaglione’s method relies on a new skills index based on data from the Occupational Information Network (O*NET) sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor. This index, which aims at providing an improved measurement of skills, includes average scores from the O*NET knowledge, skills, training and experience categories. Skilled non-college occupations are defined as those occupations that report above-average values of the skills index and typically require less than a bachelor’s degree for entry.

Other key Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions study findings include:

  • Skilled non-college occupations encompass a wide variety of occupations and industries that defy current stereotypes of such jobs.
  • The wage distribution of middle-skill jobs is more egalitarian than it is for comparison groups, such as all occupations, skilled occupations and non-college occupations.
  • Skilled non-college occupations include a significant proportion of workers who are potentially underemployed in terms of their educational attainment.

blog post summarizes the study and presents an interactive visualization of the data.

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