Forgetting Middle Skill Jobs

A new report from Skills2Compete attempts to address a national problem which continues to diminish our country’s competitive edge in the global economy. The loss of middle-skill jobs and the lack of qualified workers to fill the remaining jobs are major barriers, not only to our economic recovery, but also to our ability to sustain a high quality of life for succeeding generations. The report concludes that a new state policy is needed to align the workforce and education and training to better meet California’s labor market demand. Accomplishing that goal means improving basic skills in the workforce and ensuring that skills training and education is available to anyone post high school. A major policy change is a good start, but the report does not go far enough in addressing what is needed to restore the importance of middle-skill jobs to the economy.

Part of the challenge lies with the current mindset of the public education system and parents who value and push college as the only track to a well-paying and satisfying job. This leaves out a large segment of youth and the workforce who are not college bound and who need training and skills and encouragement to fill middle-skill jobs. Where does a high school student get vocational training or learn about middle skill jobs? Remember woodworking? Metal shop? Drafting?

Vocational education was the name of the program that provided these courses, but now it’s labeled “career tech” and the classes are no longer available in most public high schools. As a result, students have little awareness of these careers. A few years ago, while conducting focus groups of freshman and sophomore students, I was stunned to learn that many did not know what an electrician, welder, auto technician, or HVAC technician did and worse, they disdained those jobs because they thought they were “dirty” and didn’t pay well. This doesn’t bode well for a functioning society or economy. Who will service our cars, fix our plumbing, and build machinery to process our food or the solar panels to heat our homes? It will take more than a policy change to transform awareness, perceptions and values about middle-skill jobs.

The last economic boom was sustained, not by wealth created by high value manufacturing jobs, but by unbridled consumer spending particularly for houses and retail goods. If we want that standard of living to return, then we must address the greater challenge of how to grow and sustain an economy driven by production of goods instead of consumption. Along with a paradigm shift in our educational system that recognizes the importance of middle skill jobs, we must change our attitudes about work and what creates value not only for our economy but our worth to society.

We continue to hold on to arcane principles and entitled expectations about work that are increasingly less relevant in a fast-paced globalized world. We are not prepared to re-invent ourselves and our careers in terms of continuous learning of new skills and training either for middle-skill or knowledge jobs. That is what is ultimately needed to succeed in the rapidly changing workplace.

Leslie Parks has spent over ten years as a practitioner and consultant in the fields of economic and workforce development. She recently served as Director of Downtown Management and Industrial Development for the San Jose Redevelopment Agency until September 23, 2009 when she and 24 colleagues were laid off due to significant budget cuts. Leslie is now preparing for yet another career in the 21st Century workplace.