New Study Finds Far Fewer Middle-Skill Jobs in U.S. than Estimated

Skilled non-college occupations account for 16% of all jobs, significantly below widely cited estimates

July 16, 2018

Significantly fewer “middle-skill” jobs exist in the U.S. than previously estimated, according to new research from the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at UW–Madison. Using a new skills index based on federal data, the study finds that 16 percent of all jobs require training beyond high school but less than a bachelor’s degree, compared to previous estimates of one-third to more than one-half of total employment.

The new publication, based on 2016 data, finds these jobs are highly concentrated in a small number of occupations, such as first-line supervisors of office and administrative support workers, and maintenance and repair workers.

“My estimates show that one in five jobs that require less than a bachelor’s degree is in a relatively skilled occupation,” says Matías Scaglione, a senior researcher at the School of Education’s Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions. “In contrast, four in five jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree are in skilled occupations.

“This large difference should be a warning sign for those investing in career pathways associated with so-called middle-skill jobs, as well as for states, community colleges and workforce organizations that invest in job training programs.”

Repair and maintenance works, as well as first-line office supervisors, also need “middle skills.”

Repair and maintenance works, as well as first-line office supervisors, also need “middle skills.”

At the core of the estimates’ discrepancy are competing approaches to defining and isolating a quantitative measurement of skills. Scaglione’s method relies on a new skills index based on data from the Occupational Information Network (O*NET) sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor. His index, which aims at providing an improved measurement of skills, includes average scores from the O*NET knowledge, skills, training and experience categories. Skilled non-college occupations are defined as those occupations that report above-average values of the skills index and typically require less than a bachelor’s degree for entry.

Other key Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions study findings include:

  • Skilled non-college occupations encompass a wide variety of occupations and industries that defy current stereotypes of such jobs.
  • The wage distribution of middle-skill jobs is more egalitarian than it is for comparison groups, such as all occupations, skilled occupations and non-college occupations.
  • Skilled non-college occupations include a significant proportion of workers who are potentially underemployed in terms of their educational attainment.

A blog post summarizes the study and presents an interactive visualization of the data.