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New hope for middle-class workers

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist

Working as a sales clerk at a retailer such as Target (TGT) or the Gap (GPS) may not seem like an auspicious career beginning. But new research suggests such “middle skill” jobs could lead to much better opportunity than many Americans realize, and perhaps even represent the missing link in a lackluster economic recovery.

Researchers at Harvard Business School, consulting firm Accenture and analytics group Burning Glass have published a new report that helps explain a strange new paradox of the U.S. economy: employers are struggling to fill many key openings even as an unusually large number of workers are underemployed or sidelined completely.

An Accenture survey from earlier this year, for instance, found that 56% of firms have trouble filling middle-skill jobs, which are typically jobs that require some training beyond a high-school diploma but not a four-year college degree. Shortages of such workers are most acute in fields such as finance, insurance and healthcare. Accenture also found that 73% of employers expect their need for middle-skills jobs grow in the next two to three years.

Yet there are still nearly 3 million people who have been unemployed for more than 6 months, and the average duration of unemployment, at nearly 33 weeks, remains close to record levels. The percentage of adults working or looking for work has been falling for eight years and has dropped to levels from the late 1970s.

No college degree required

Workers who are un- or underemployed don’t necessarily have the skills to fill the jobs that are open. But another reason for the mismatch between people looking for work and companies looking for workers may be the neglect of middle-skill jobs that are more important to the economy than most people realize.

“There’s a big push right now for employers to begin to invest more in building these skills,” David Smith of Accenture tells me in the video above. “Our data shows that more than half [of companies] are saying they can’t find the experience or the training among middle-skill workers.”

With career experts repeatedly highlighting the importance of a college degree, middle-skill jobs such as sales reps, technicians and various types of assistants often have little appeal to young workers. Yet many such jobs can lead to promotions, raises, new opportunities and salaries of $60,000 or $70,000. A capable sales clerk, for instance, could rise through the ranks of a retail operation into inventory control, logistics and even management.

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Smith and his fellow researchers want employers, educators and policymakers to put new emphasis on preparing high-school students for middle-skill jobs and making it easier for high-school graduates to get relevant training. In the meanwhile, workers who take the initiative, seek additional training on their own and find ways to differentiate themselves from peers are the ones most likely to get ahead. “Take some certification programs,” Smith advises. “Put some things on your resume. When you do that, you begin a cycle where the employer will show more interest in you.”

Analysis by Burning Glass found that employers frequently seek workers with experience in sales, customer service, computer support and many technical fields—even if that experience is entry-level. Thousands of openings in such fields require no college degree. Some companies look for college credentials anyway, because they assume college experience will make workers more worldly and well-rounded, especially when dealing with customers. That hiring approach can backfire, though, since openings requiring a degree usually remain open longer.

Job seekers do need to avoid the trap of targeting narrow fields where the opportunity for upward mobility may be limited. The middle-skills report singles out pharmacy technicians, who can earn decent starting pay of nearly $30,000. But few higher-paying jobs cite the need for the skills pharmacy technicians have, which limits the upside of such work.

As many struggling workers know, the job market still favors employers in many areas, since unemployment remains elevated and wages have been stagnant. But economists expect the job market to tighten and wages to start rising as the economy finally starts to get back to normal. It still isn’t clear whether adequate numbers of lucrative, middle-class jobs will return, since automation, globalization and other forces are reshaping the whole economy. But pathways are reopening for ambitious workers determined to get ahead. Even sales clerks.

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