Middle-Skills Workers Are in Demand, But Are Companies Hiring?

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Electrician builder at work inspecting cabling connection of high voltage power electric line in industrial distribution fuseboa
GettyElectricians make up a portion of the middle-skills workers expected to be in demand the next few years.


Ever heard of a "middle-skills" job? Yes? No? Outside of the career world, it isn't the most familiar term, referring not to jobs that are semi-specialized (or ask you to complete tasks using only your gut), but ones that require more than a high school education, but not a four-year college degree.

If you aren't familiar with them yet, you may be soon. According to a new survey from Accenture, 73 percent of U.S. companies expect the demand for middle-skills jobs to tick up significantly over the next two years. Sound like a good thing? It is. But here's the catch: right now, those same companies are struggling to find people with the kinds of qualifications we're talking about.

First, some clarity as to what a middle-skills job actually entails. Here's a random smattering of careers that fit the bill: painter, electrician, dental hygienist, motorboat mechanic, paralegal, air traffic controller, computer support specialist. They're the types of jobs that require training, but no bachelor's degree, and typically pay a reasonable living wage.Sometimes, though, middle-skills workers can earn more than their college-educated counterparts: average lifetime earnings for electricians, for instance, are around $2.1 million, higher than numerous jobs (teacher, editor) that typically require a B.A. USA Today termed middle-skills jobs "the new blue collar," but that's a slightly dismissive way of putting it. They're more a reminder of the diminishing value of a college degree--more than ever, a luxury item--in today's job market.

The good news: we could see 2.5 million middle-skills jobs added by 2017, accounting for around 40 percent of job growth. So why are companies having such a hard time filling these positions, to the point where studies have coined a "middle-skills gap?" According to Accenture, some HR professionals have pointed out a perceived lack of experienced candidates--surprising, given that the U.S. unemployment rate is still nearly six percent. Among those surveyed, 54 percent said that "trained talent is difficult to find," while only two in ten said they'd be willing to consider hiring an employee who requires additional training.

It's not just workers who are suffering. Companies are taking a hit too, particularly in the finance sector, where 68 percent of those surveyed said they had a hard time filling middle-skills positions. The impact on productivity has been tangible.

So what's the solution? Accenture proposes that companies work more closely with community-based organizations and build a "talent pipeline" with community colleges and technical skills where workers are acquiring specialized training. But maybe the answer is simpler than that. If the workers are already there--and they are--maybe the middle-skills gap is as much the product of perception on the part of HR professionals: perception that an ostensibly qualified employee isn't, perception that any additional training is a waste of company time.

Certainly, the stats about middle-skills job growth are encouraging. But by ignoring the multitude of trained, experienced candidates out there--some of them languishing in years-long unemployment--companies are only shooting themselves in the foot. With that in mind: middle-skills job seekers, rise up! Trust in your abilities, and the fact they're sorely needed! If the numbers are to believed, employers will take note.
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