Middle Skills to the Middle Class

What if a middle-skills job—one that requires more education than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree—could be a ticket to the middle class?
It’s possible, experts say, but not enough state policymakers are taking the steps to help ensure the middle can grow. It’s going to take good data, innovative programs and the will to work together, experts say, but growing the middle class can be done.
Middle Jobs
So what are middle jobs?
“There was a set of middle jobs everybody was very familiar with and tend to bemoan the loss of—the blue collar industrial jobs that were prevalent between 1946 and 1983,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
The old middle jobs that paved an entire generation’s way to the middle class—jobs like manufacturing, transportation, construction and mining—are largely gone. But middle jobs remain almost a third of the job openings across the United States, he said.
“People see those jobs having disappeared and tend to think that the middle is gone, which is really not true,” he said. “There is a new set of middle jobs now that are in offices, white collar jobs. They are in computing, they are in finance and accounting, they’re in health care and all of those are service jobs, not manufacturing jobs. They tend to require high school plus some level of postsecondary education or training.”
While college education used to be a guaranteed ticket to the middle class, Carnevale said that isn’t the case so much anymore.
“You can get a certificate in heating, ventilation and air conditioning, in computers, in industrial technology, in a variety of technical fields,” he said. “You can get a certificate and make more than 20 to 25 percent of people with bachelor’s degrees. So you have a system in which the field of study is beginning to matter more than the level of the degree. “
But, Carnevale said, not all universities or community colleges are producing graduates that can earn a living. States aren’t doing a good enough job linking college transcript data and employer wage records to see if universities are producing students that can get a job and how much that job pays, he said.
“You can find out what school they went to and what field of study they took,” he said. “Any state can find this out now. … Most state legislators and officials don’t even know this exists because it’s relatively new. It’s the way you would govern the (higher education) system and it’s also the way you would inform students and the institutions that provide education and training which programs work and which ones don’t, at least from an economic point of view.
“We know that since 1980, we’ve had a huge increase in the earnings differences among Americans, growing income inequality and all that. We know 70 percent of that difference comes from differences in either going to college or in different programs people take. … It’s a system that is essentially deciding who is middle class and who isn’t. There’s an urgency to it.”
Overcoming Biases
Alabama Rep. Mac Buttram, who was one of the featured speakers at a Policy Academy on Workforce Development at the CSG National and CSG West Annual Conference in Alaska in August, said people in general are giving career and technical education short shrift today. These are jobs that can pay well, he said, but Americans favor four-year degrees over certificates.
Buttram was appointed to Gov. Robert Bentley’s new Alabama Workforce Council. The council, comprised primarily of state business leaders, is designed to help K-12 and higher education institutions in the state better meet the needs of businesses and industries.
Buttram relates the story of a young man who lived near Huntsville, one of America’s aerospace centers, who wanted to become an aviation mechanic. He was taking classes at the career technical center while in high school and working part time at an aeronautics company, which was poised to employ him after graduation.
“His mother was horrified,” Buttram said. “She wanted him to go to college. … When he graduates, he’ll get a certificate, but that company will pay for him to get a four-year degree should he choose to do so. That company will also pay for him to get a master’s degree.”
It’s that kind of bias against community college and technical training that states must overcome, Buttram said. That’s exactly what Iowa is trying to do with a new program called Elevate Iowa.
According to a 2013 report from Iowa Workforce Development, 56 percent of the jobs in Iowa in 2012 were middle-skills jobs, yet just 33 percent of the workforce possessed middle skill abilities.
Elevate Iowa is partially funded by a U.S. Department of Labor grant designed to build training capacity in specific programs—such as welding or industrial maintenance—at community colleges across the state. That funding targets specific populations, such as the underemployed, veterans and minorities.
The Iowa Association of Business and Industry also funds Elevate Iowa. Its charge is to promote the idea of career and technical education by targeting children, parents and guidance counselors.
“Our goal at Elevate is really to change the perception of manufacturing,” said Michele Farrell, project manager for Elevate Iowa on behalf of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry. “We love the four-year degree. All manufacturers have front offices with accountants and legal and everything else. We need both. We want people to realize that hey, if that’s not the path for you, you have this option. … It’s a good option.
“So right now we’re on the air with radio campaigns. We have print campaigns around the state. We are doing presentations to all of the area education associations. … We have talked to school boards, to superintendents. I’m telling you, we’ve been all over the state talking about manufacturing.”
In late September, Farrell said, Iowa had more than 6,000 job openings in manufacturing with an average wage of $51,000 annually. One company needs machinists so badly that it pays people to go through training at a local community college and, if a student earns at least 80 percent on their classwork, they are automatically hired.
“If I had 40 certified welders right now, I could place them at a company tomorrow,” Farrell said. “I keep watching the national news, … they’re talking about how bad (the economy is), nobody can find a job. I think, ‘Oh my goodness, come to Iowa! You guys do not know what you’re talking about. We have openings.’”
Overcoming Barriers
Washington state has been trying to help get its unemployed residents trained and into the workforce using a little-known program offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.
Washington will receive almost $30 million in federal funding this fiscal year to run its Basic Food Employment and Training program, which served between 12,000 and 13,000 people last year.
“It’s what’s called a third-party match model, which means the state doesn’t actually do the groundwork,” said Bob Thibodeau, lead program manager for food assistance in Washington state and former manager for the Basic Food Employment and Training program. “We contract with agencies, with community and technical colleges and community-based organizations that specialize in this type of work.”
Thibodeau said the colleges provide the training to get enrollees into the workforce, while community-based organizations help them overcome other potential barriers, such as housing, child care and transportation.
The program started in 2005 as a pilot with the Seattle Jobs Initiative, a nonprofit group that started out as part of Seattle’s Office of Economic Development. David Kaz, policy director for the initiative, said the initiative has moved to the idea of career pathways rather than short-term training to get someone into a job as soon as possible.
“Career pathways is really focused on longer-term training than we had historically done at the community colleges,” he said. “We’re trying to get people to at least one-year college credential. … We moved in this direction because of the labor market telling us that in order for people to get what we call middle wage jobs, we need to get them to longer-term training to be successful.”
Career navigators work with each person in the program, helping them access any services they might need and helping them navigate the college system. Right now, the initiative is focusing on four different sectors where there is demand in Seattle—health care, business/information technology, manufacturing (primarily welding) and logistics and trade (primarily mechanics).
The kind of training people receive, Kaz said, is intended to help them take the next step in their employment journey. It’s a process, he said, not a destination.
“A career pathway, by definition in the training field, is sort of linked steps in training,” he said, “so you can step in and out, which a lot of people have to do. It’s sort of chunked out in your training. You can complete a chunk and that helps you get a better job than when you started, but you’re still not done. Then … when you’re ready to come back to training, it links to that next step, with each jump helping to improve your labor market prospects, make it really seamless for people.”
The idea seems to be working. Since career pathways started in 2012, Kaz said, 900 individuals have been trained by the Seattle initiative—about 85-90 percent of them have been participants in the Basic Food Employment and Training program. After three months on a job, 92 percent of those people were still employed. After long-term career training, the average wage of people placed in jobs is $16.62 per hour.
While interest is growing in this type of federal funding to provide education for SNAP recipients, Kaz understands why it hasn’t taken off sooner. Funding for training programs usually comes through the U.S. departments of Labor or Education, he said, and the overall pot of money states can apply for is still fairly small. 
Kaz and Thibodeau said it took some time to figure out how to make this a self-sustaining program.
“We (the community-based organizations and the colleges) are investing our resources to get the match so we can expand what we’re doing,” Kaz said. “We’re putting up our own money so the state doesn’t have to put up any additional money. … Figuring out that model is key and it’s not easy to do that.”
Thibodeau said it’s important to have willing partners on both sides.
“Maybe some states think they have to do it across the whole state and not just try it out as a pilot first,” he said. “That’s what we did here in Washington. We tried it out as a pilot in a small area, made sure we worked out all the kinks first and we grew the program very strategically and very gradually to make sure we didn’t start something that we couldn’t finish or start something we couldn’t handle.”
Importance of Cooperation
Bryan Wilson, state policy director for the National Skills Coalition, said cooperation and working across silos is important for everybody when talking about workforce development—even legislators.
“Generally, policymakers are involved in just one of the program silos,” he said. “They’re involved in community colleges or they’re involved in the Workforce Investment Act or they’re involved with apprenticeships or vocational rehabilitation. There tends not to be a focus on the overall picture of how all these programs can work together to prepare people for jobs.”
The July reauthorization of the former Workforce Investment Act—now called the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act—may help spur states in the direction of looking at education, labor and workforce development in one broad stroke. States will be required to develop and submit a four-year unified strategy that identifies skills gaps with employers and how the state is going to close those gaps.
The new act is a significant chance for states to improve how they educate their workforce, Wilson said.
“There are probably over a dozen significant reforms in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act over its predecessor program, the Workforce Investment Act,” he said. “Many of these reforms will help align programs to better serve individuals and meet employer needs. …There is now going to be a set of common metrics, six performance measures that will be consistently used across workforce programs. Being measured by the same measures will help folks align their programs with one another.”