The term may not be overly familiar, but middle-skill workers are a huge segment of the working economy. These employees have some college or credentials, but haven't hit the four-year degree mark — and are a key source of potential talent.
But as the economy shifts, middle-skill workers are usually the ones left in the lurch. What can employers do to ensure that a giant talent pool doesn't dry up?
What are middle-skill jobs?
"We tend to think of occupations as a grouping of jobs that have some dimensions," said Frank Britt, CEO at Penn Foster. "From an education perspective, middle-skill jobs are beyond high school but not a four-year degree." This labeling is broad, however, and can include medical professionals, machine operators, retail workers and skilled tradespeople.
Stephen Kosslyn, president and CEO at Foundry College, told HR Dive that there are over 50 categories of such jobs listed by the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics — from running hotels, doctor's offices or IT services to managing a supply chain for a large business. "Middle-skills jobs account for 54% of the U.S. labor market," he said in an email, "but only 43% of the country's workers are prepared for such jobs."
This category is growing, as employers require a wide range of non-manual skilled roles. "But today this category of worker is experiencing massive skill shortages in areas such as IT, Data, and Digital," Niall McKinney, global president of Avado, said in an email, "particularly as automation elevates the roles of human employees beyond repeatable linear tasks and into more creative evaluative decisions."
But middle-skill jobs are evolving to the point where the distinction may no longer be accurate, according to Koreen Pagano, VP of corporate product management at D2L — especially in a world where "continuous and online learning are a fact of life in most jobs." Citing a Deloitte study that shows the half-life of a learned skill is just five years, Pagano noted in an email that "all employees and their employers need to be in the business of skilling-up continuously if they want to remain relevant." And that new reality makes the very definition of "middle skill" a bit murky.
The shifting perceptions of middle-skill training
Companies are rethinking the employee value proposition of development overall, Britt said. Historically, education benefits have been in the form of tuition reimbursement, and were largely reserved for the top of the food chain. But today's worker aspires to advance, and offering training can be a key way to enable that. "Business is beginning to embrace the idea that middle skills deserve the same opportunities," Britt said. "In addition to their social responsibility, it's economically rational: The more skills these workers have, the better they serve the company and themselves."
For many companies, real learning may require rethinking of "skill bundles" and not measuring training success based on completion, according to Britt. "Imagine a welder enrolling in a course that requires 250 hours or training," Britt said. "Even before they complete, after their first 100 hours, for example, they're already more valuable as a worker." Instead, employers need to rethink how access, confidence and skills improvement are valued; "That's how to really measure ROI," Britt added.
For businesses looking to reduce churn, learning is a valuable tool. The majority of employees participating in learning will stay with the company at least to completion. "It's the right thing to do," says Britt, "and it makes sense economically. The idea is the benefit pool being offered is evolving to include economic mobility."
McKinney cites another benefit: 43% of participants identify as minorities in UK apprenticeships on Avado's Creative Pioneers program, whereas the industry average is 13.8%. Such examples showcase "how successful professional education and apprenticeship programs can be at solving not just the talent gap, but also at addressing diversity," he said.
Pagano warns that the rise of tech and automation makes middle-skilled workers who are without access to skills training vulnerable to workplace disruption. "Keeping these skills sharp and workplace-relevant is in the best interest of employers," she said. "No sector of the economy and no category of job is immune to change — whether that's sudden, disruptive change or the smaller-scale changes brought about by evolving technology." That's why learning should be a continuous journey for all employees at every stage of their career.
Upskilling and recruitment go hand-in-hand
Identifying new or existing roles that require investment in upskilling is a critical component of digital transformation, McKinney said, and "one that is often overlooked by more turnkey approaches."
Kosslyn noted a wide range of workers can benefit from upskilling, and it's not difficult to teach the skills and abilities employers value. That said, he adds, few colleges directly teach that material.
In addition, the matter of scale is difficult for employers to ignore. The staffing sector represents 14% of U.S. workers, Britt said. Industry reps are finding and deploying 15 to 16 million temp workers per year, and these companies are embracing upskilling to keep employees around and increase their value in the market, he continued. For example, staffing company EmployBridge offers upskilling through Penn Foster for all workers, and the company found that the benefit had a positive impact on the recruitment staff. The push for development created a culture where recruiters knew they weren't just getting someone for a placement — they were helping that worker control their economic destiny.