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The Myth of the Permanent Working Class

David Francis

The working class was disproportionately hit by job losses during the Great Recession. But is that a bad thing? According to experts, the United States should not work to return to an economy that demands low-skilled jobs. Instead, the economic recovery should help create jobs that require workers to have advanced skills.

Brian Domitrovic, a professor of economic history at Sam Houston State University in Texas, says the transition from low-skilled jobs to work that requires advanced skills is ultimately what people in the working class want for their children. "I grew up in Pittsburgh. The universal aspiration for steel workers in Pittsburgh was to never have their children working in the steel mill," Domitrovic says. "There's a myth that we should make a permanent working class. You want to get out of the mill."

The numbers support Domitrovic's contention: According to September Conference Board data, the number of skilled-worker positions has risen 38 percent since 2005.

In addition to the working class retraining in order to compete in the job market, this transition means education must fundamentally change to ensure future generations will able to find work.

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Transitioning from middle to high skill. According to Philip Noftsinger, business unit president at CBIZ Payroll Services, a firm that helps clients better manage their finances and employees, re-education is the most important component to enabling out-of-work middle-skill workers to land new jobs. The qualifications needed to perform middle-skill jobs in the past are no longer in demand. Now, manufacturing jobs require--at the very least--familiarity with technology, advanced math, and computer skills.

Noftsinger, who also analyzes the CBIZ Small Business Employment Index--a barometer for hiring trends among small companies--says the government is not in a position to foot the bill to retrain workers. He says if members of the middle class are forced to take on the financial burden of retraining, many of them will face years of hardship in trying to regain their footing. "We're going to have to take the pain for the short term," he says.

Fortunately, there are some options for workers looking to acquire new skills. Schools like the ITT Technical Institute and the University of Phoenix offer classes to improve technology skills. They also offer course schedules built around everyday life activities, like holding a job or raising children.

There are drawbacks to this strategy. Students are responsible for paying their own tuition. And these schools are for-profit colleges. Costs per credit vary, but according to a report from Inside Higher Ed, a credit toward a bachelor's degree at the University of Phoenix can be as high as $420.

There is also no guarantee of a job: A July 2012 Senate report found that the University of Phoenix has no staff to assist with career services. Mark Brenner, senior vice president of external affairs at the Apollo Group, the company that owns the University of Phoenix, says because the university doesn't cater to traditional students, it differs from taking the traditional approach to helping students get jobs. He said the university recently launched a job portal with 20,000 openings across 37 companies.

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Start advanced training at a young age. According to Tom Janoski, a professor of sociology at the University of Kentucky, preparation for the future job market must begin at an early age. In the past, people in the working class typically only had a high-school education or were high-school dropouts. But the undereducated may have more trouble finding work soon, as Janoski predicts basic manufacturing jobs will start to require a college degree.

"New manufacturing workers will not be high-school dropouts. They will have learned enough calculus in a community college to operate numerically controlled cutting and shaping machines," Janoski says. "These jobs will be higher-paid."

He calls these workers "semi-engineers." They include computer-aided machine operators, machinists who use computers to make and assemble advanced technological components, and workers with an understanding of microchip technology.

"We are not there yet, but my solution is to take people not going to college and who like to work with things and their hands, and put them into community college for the junior and senior years of high school to learn this technology," he says. "Otherwise, the new working class are the low-wage workers flipping burgers at McDonald's and greeting customers at Walmart."

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Short-term relief, but long-term planning needed. Noftsinger says he's noticed an encouraging sign in recent months: Some small-business manufacturing jobs appear to be returning from overseas. Companies "can't get the quality from they want from Asian workers," he says.

But Noftsinger warns that simply bringing jobs back to America won't solve the manufacturing crisis. Only coordinated efforts between schools, the government, and the private sector will improve working class prospects, he says.

"My hope is that we can have more long-term focus in policy, education, and the economy to get back on a path that brings us to long-term prosperity," he says.

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