The Exchange

The Jobs That Could Save the Middle Class

The Exchange

If you’re a teacher or electrician, there’s a lot riding on your shoulders.

The U.S. economy has stagnated because there aren’t as many well-paying middle-class jobs as there used to be. A generation ago, millions of Americans could get ahead on hard work and a bit of brawn. But many of the blue-collar jobs that helped several generations of Americans buy homes and cars and enroll their kids in college no longer exist.

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Two economists argued recently in The New York Times that technology is largely to blame for hollowing out the middle class. “The multi-trillionfold decline in the cost of computing since the 1970s has created enormous incentives for employers to substitute increasingly cheap and capable computers for expensive labor,” they wrote. “Computerization has therefore fostered a polarization of employment, with job growth concentrated in both the highest- and lowest-paid occupations, while jobs in the middle have declined.”

The world needs CEOs and janitors, in other words, but robots and microprocessors can handle a lot of the jobs in between. This rise of the machines might invoke some sort of sci-fi nightmare. But there’s a solution, the two economists insist: A class of workers they dub “new artisans” will emerge as the foundation of the 21st-century middle class. Like the blue-collar workers of yore, they won’t necessarily need a college degree or have to pony up the considerable cash it takes to obtain one. Yet they’ll have skills that allow them to demand decent wages, and they can’t be replaced by a computer.

It turns out there are many such jobs, and they have certain things in common. New artisans will combine vocational training or other types of basic skills with a creative mindset, problem-solving ability, interpersonal charm and other traits computers can’t easily mimic. Many will use technology in their work, but they won’t succumb to it.

Transition may take time

Medical technicians, licensed practical nurses, customer-service reps and other types of paraprofessionals will be the assembly-line workers of the 21st century, earning decent pay for work that requires some technical knowledge and a better touch with people than Siri can offer. Various types of trade people fit the profile, too -- including plumbers, electricians, builders, HVAC installers and welders -- since there’s little substitute for people who come to your home or office building and fix problems.

Automotive technicians are similar to contractors, except they fix cars, not homes. And teachers, tutors and other types of learning guides have a clear role in a knowledge-based economy, though they typically face higher educational requirements than other types of new artisans.

Some of these jobs, especially those in the health-care industry, have shown up for years on lists of “recession-proof” jobs, because they involve core products or services that people need no matter what. So in some sense, the only thing that’s new about “new artisans” is a taxonomy of qualifications that helps explain why these jobs aren’t likely to disappear as so many others have.

There’s also a question of whether there will be enough new artisan jobs to replace all the old blue-collar jobs that have gone away. The economy has lost about 1.8 million manufacturing jobs since 2008, for instance, while it has gained about 1.7 million health-care jobs. That’s encouraging, except that workers who have spent their career in manufacturing and suddenly end up laid off can’t just slip on a gown and start working in a hospital. Since starting a new career requires retraining and often relocating, it could take the better part of a generation for the overall economy to transition from the old blue-collar model to the new-artisan one.

A lot of younger workers, meanwhile, are heading straight into the industries that are disrupting the old economy. Newer industries such as mobile communications, software development, Internet publishing and data processing now employ millions of Americans who might have worked on an assembly line back in the day. At job-search site Indeed.com, every one of the top 10 job trends involves technology, including social media and HTML programming.

The middle class remains under stress, but one of its landmark qualities is supposedly a knack for survival. Plus, many Americans actually like technology.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.

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