By Deborah A. Brodbeck / July 7, 2014

In a comprehensive report regarding the future of America’s workforce, Middle Skills Jobs and the Growing Importance of Postsecondary Education, it is projected that 46.8 million job openings will be available in America by 2018. “Thirty million of these jobs will require some level of postsecondary education [with an estimated] shortfall of 3 million individuals [having] the appropriate level of education to fill them” (Achieve Report, 2009).

The job sector that will dominate the future is not high skill jobs, but middle skills employment. By 2018, the estimated increase of middle skills jobs is 45% that exceeds the projections for both high skill (33%), and low skill (21%) jobs. What are the opportunities of middle skills jobs? Employment in the following fields: health care support occupations, healthcare practitioners/technical occupations, community and social service occupations, construction and related industries, administrative/technology support, transportation and material moving occupations, and the service/maintenance/repair industry (Bureau of Labor Statistics). These job sectors are all service-providing industries.

Service-providing industries are projected to account for the most job growth by 2020, with a projected increase of approximately 130 million jobs (13.8 percent) by 2020. The goods-producing industries are expected to increase to 19.5 million jobs (9.2 percent) by 2020

(NAS Report, 2012). With the service-providing industries having the greater demand for employment opportunities, there will be an emerging need for postsecondary training programs that are aligned to meet the employment trends of the 21st century workplace.

Currently, 60% of employees report that candidates lack the skills to fill available positions (Achieve Report, 2009) and by 2020 it is estimated that “too few students will obtain college degrees, too many will have no more than a high school diploma, and the number of Americans without even a high-school diploma will rise” (McKinsey Report, 2012). Without aggressive initiatives and new models of career training programs for middle skills jobs, America will be faced with a diminished employment pool lacking the skills set to meet the demands of industry.

Alignment of postsecondary outcomes with the right skills for employment requires innovative programs that integrate the standards of industry into the curriculum, producing career ready job applicants. To begin to address this issue, there was a fundamental shift in the basic philosophy of career and technical education (CTE). The shift in program design was to a system that prepares students for both employment and postsecondary education rather than just providing alternative programs for students who were not college bound (ACTE Report, 2009). Student learning outcomes were revised to provide instruction in career readiness and success in postsecondary education by blending technical education with a more rigorous academic program.

Reforms in secondary CTE programs are beginning to improve workplace readiness and more students successfully pursuing postsecondary options. Since 2010, there has been a marked increase in completion of postsecondary certificates with the number of awards exceeding completion of both associate and baccalaureate degrees. A study in Kentucky, noted the “average return on the investment for those who earned a certificate of at least one year is comparable to the returns of earning an associate degree: $8,000 per year for women and $7,000 for men” (Achieve Report, 2012).

A common cause among educators and businesses evolved into the vocationalism movement that emphasized the importance of integrating vocational training with employment-oriented goals. This movement embraced alternative pathways to postsecondary credentials that had labor market value while addressing the skills gap. The expectation was that students would be engaged in training programs that focus on postsecondary credentials that develop the skill set “that meets the needs of area business, improve regional and national competitiveness, help them earn a family-sustaining wage, and prepare them for further learning” (Soares, 2012).

A synergy between the regional economy and career training programs will provide the opportunity for development of innovative instructional programs that provide a match, not a mismatch of skills between what the employer needs and the applicant’s skill set. Collaborative partnerships where industry leaders work closely with regional career training programs to incorporate industry standards into curriculum is integral to closing the skills gap that exists today. Annual surveys conducted by Manpower Group (2013) found that the top ten jobs employers found most difficult to fill were actually middle skills jobs. Without collaborative partnerships that help reshape postsecondary education and career development programs, the youth of today will not be prepared for the workforce of tomorrow.

To achieve the goal of addressing the skills gap, industry leaders and educators must form collaborative partnerships that transform instruction by alignment of curriculum with workplace expectations and the standards of industry. An integrated approach, where business leaders are actively involved in curriculum design, participate in program advisory committees, and are industry mentors will help direct work-based learning experiences in the classroom that enhances not only the curriculum, but provides a skill base that is relevant to securing employment and meeting the needs of a company.

Strategic partnerships based on collaboration between postsecondary educators and business leaders are the pathway to success, not only for the student transitioning to the labor market, but improving the employment pool of qualified workers having the right skills for available jobs. Viewing businesses as workplace partners and a primary customer should be a clear and stated priority of an institution in order to engage businesses in effective partnerships that benefit the employer while enhancing program development and marketplace relevancy (New Ways to Work Report, 2007). Better trained students will make better employees, requiring less transitional support and orientation when entering the workforce.

Technical training needs to become a priority to prevent America’s infrastructure from deteriorating. Mike Rowe, founder of the ProfoundlyDisconneted website and “Dirty Jobs,” cited in an interview “most people have no practical relationship with that part of the workforce that keeps the lights on, builds bridges, and makes civilized life work” (Hedges, 2014). This illustrates not only the disconnect causing the skills gap that employers are experiencing, but the lack of recognition of the importance of middle skills jobs in keeping America vital.

There is a growing sense of urgency among industry leaders that highlights the need for making technical education a national priority while emphasizing the importance of collaborative partnerships between business leaders and educators in realizing that goal and making postsecondary education relevant to the needs of the 21st century economy.



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Hedges, Dan. (posted 05/30/2014). “Mike Rowe Suggests a Solution for the Skills Gap.” [internet] EDUCATION: Higher Education for Engineers. (accessed 06/02/2014)

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New Ways To Work. (2007). “Engaging Employers and Workplace Partners: Quality Characteristics of Effective Organizations.” (accessed 04/17/2014)

Soares, Louis. (posted 10/04/2010). “The Power of the Education-Industry Partnership: Fostering Innovation in Collaboration Between Community Colleges and Businesses.” American Progress Report. (accessed 04/16/2014)