College & Workforce Readiness

Training Young People for Middle-Skill Jobs: New Guidelines Proposed

By Catherine Gewertz — January 11, 2018 5 min read
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Programs to train young people for middle-skill jobs must avoid tracking, and should carefully balance industry-specific preparation with more generalizable skills to equip students for a changing workplace, according to a report issued this week.

The study, issued by the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, explores a part of the jobs-and-education landscape that’s risen sharply on the public’s radar in the last few years: the vast array of jobs that require more than a high school diploma and less than a bachelor’s degree. Those “middle-skill” jobs account for 48 percent of U.S. employment, according to researchers.

The report is aimed at programs that play roles in students’ journey from high school student to skilled employee: dual-enrollment programs or early-college high schools that give students a leg up in college; career academies that help them focus their thinking on certain occupational fields; and career-technical-education programs, work-based learning, apprenticeships, and programs that confer post-secondary certificates or associate degrees.

Policymakers and researchers are increasingly calling attention to the promise of jobs that require less than a bachelor’s degree. They note that there are millions of jobs that pay a middle-class wage or better, and don’t require the time and debt of four years of college. Key sectors of the job market are growing quickly, and require only sub-baccalaureate credentials.

Job Preparation, Envisioned

The committee created a set of guidelines that it believes should shape programs that train students in middle-skill jobs. It also offers a state-by-state breakdown showing the portion of each state’s job market that’s made up of middle-skill jobs, and how many registered apprenticeships exist in each state.

Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, the top Democrat on the committee, urged Congress to support programs that train students for middle-skill jobs.

“A dynamic workforce is a key component of any strong economy,” he said in a statement. “Apprenticeships and other middle-skills pathways can enhance the skills of America’s workforce, boost U.S. competitiveness, and prepare a new generation of American workers for labor market success.”

Among the principles outlined in the committee’s report, one in particular seeks to address a difficult part of the history of career-readiness training: tracking.

For years, schools funneled low-income and minority students into career-prep programs, many of which resulted in low-wage jobs, while their more affluent peers were placed in college-prep courses. Concern about those practices still haunts the world of career and technical education, even as the field makes conscious strides to offer more—and more-equal—opportunities for all students.

The committee placed that concern at the top of its list. It said training programs for middle-skill jobs should:

  • Expand career opportunities without limiting future options. “Well designed middle-skills programs should serve as a way for students to expand their postsecondary options rather than narrowing them,” the report says. High schools must ensure that students get high-quality education that will support their moves into the workforce and also into higher education, the report says.
  • Teach skills that are in demand by local and regional employers. To avoid leaving students in occupational dead ends, programs must keep up with changing labor market demands.
  • Teach specific skill sets in addition to general skills. A program that’s too job-specific risks putting students in a situation where there is waning demand for their skills. Programs should offer a “structured sequence” of courses and training that leads clearly to credentials or degrees. The focus should be on “the nature of the work within the industry,” not the technical requirements of a specific job.
  • Offer portable and stackable credentials. Credentials that are independently verified, or accredited, can be recognized by workplaces and training programs as students blend jobs and education. Credentials should be structured so students can use them in meaningful ways as they enter and exit the workplace while pursuing education and training.
  • Improve access to information and guidance. Students have too little access to information about routes to middle-skill jobs. They need information on program quality, and a skilled professional to help them design a good plan.

Anthony P. Carnevale, who studies labor market trends as the director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, said the committee’s report is part of an evolving national conversation about career preparation. After the landmark “A Nation at Risk” study of 1983, U.S. K-12 schools began eliminating vocational education because of concerns about tracking, and aimed instead to provide academic study for all students, he said.

That shift pushed career preparation largely out of high schools and into postsecondary settings, Carnevale said. Now, as many policymakers downplay the need for bachelor’s degrees and step up demand for career readiness, K-12 schools must figure out what part they’ll play in preparing students for future occupations.

“They’re not going back to voc ed, because it was a sexist, racist, and class-based system,” Carnevale said. Career and technical education can offer valuable exposure to job ideas, he said, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for job training. Most jobs require significant training after high school, studies show.

The Role of Apprenticeships

Echoing a policy priority of President Donald Trump, the committee’s report makes a case for expanding apprenticeships. It says that the job-placement rate for apprentices is 91 percent, and that those who complete apprenticeships that are registered through the U.S. Department of Labor earn about $240,000 more during their lifetimes than their peers. Since apprenticeships are “driven by employer demand,” there is better match between the skills companies want and the skills students learn, the report says.

The committee’s data on registered apprenticeships illustrates wide variations from state to state. Little Connecticut has 5,800 people in 1,540 registered apprenticeship programs. California has only 229 registered programs, but has 48,700 apprentices in those programs. In the state of Louisiana, there are only 50 registered apprenticeship programs. (Many apprenticeship programs are not registered with the federal agency.)

States also vary by the proportion of middle-skill jobs in their labor markets and the average wages of those jobs. In many states, about 30 percent of the jobs are considered middle-skill. The District of Columbia came in at the bottom, with 17 percent, and three states topped the list with 38 percent: Indiana, Kentucky, and Wyoming. Average wages for middle-skill jobs ranged state to state, from $38,800 to $58,400.

For a three-part series on program quality, career advising, and equity in career and technical education, see:

Career and Technical Education at a Crossroads

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.