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Job Training Shifts to 'Middle Skills' to Put Millennials Back to Work

A degree doesn't guarantee a job, but a certificate instead of a B.A could mean a shot at one of 50,000 slots in state's 21st century manufacturing sector

middle-skill tech worker

Zoe Baldwin, field director for U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), recently had an odd social encounter that she believes has a lot to say about millennials and the plight they’ve been facing in the recent economy.

The 30-year-old Baldwin introduced herself to a 20-something woman who courteously asked what she did for a living. But before Baldwin could answer, the woman stammered an apology.

Bewildered, Baldwin asked what the apology was for. The answer: “Most millennials (those born between 1977 and 1992) don’t ask where someone works anymore,” because of fear of embarrassing them. They’re so used to their peers being unemployed, they no longer assume anyone their age has a job.

Indeed, unemployment has become an entrenched part of life for today’s 18-to-34-year-olds. Even as economic figures have rebounded somewhat since the Great Recession, millennials -- regardless of their education -- are discovering that the recovery doesn’t necessarily translate to more jobs for them.

For that reason, educators and employment experts are increasingly recommending a path around a bachelors degree. Instead, it takes high-schoolers and young job-seekers through targeted preparation for “middle-skill” jobs that require training but not necessarily college. The goal: one of approximately 50,000 unfilled New Jersey positions in a sector long-believed dead: manufacturing.

It’s Worse Than You Think

Remember the dot-com bust of 2001? According to a report issued by the Young Invincibles national advocacy group for millennials, employment levels for young people never returned to what they’d been before that. Then came the recession of 2008, and would-be workers aged 18-34 have suffered double-digit unemployment for six years straight.

With a quarter of young adult job losses hitting after the recession officially ended, the Opportunity Nation coalition of more than 250 nonprofits, businesses, educational institutions, and faith-based and community organizations estimates that 5.8 million young adults nationally now neither work nor attend school. In New Jersey, 18.2 percent of the state's 16-24 year-olds were unemployed in 2012, according to the latest figures available from the Bureau of National Labor Statistics. (The definition of "unemployed" is limited to those actively seeking work, not those still in school.)

The individual and aggregate costs of this trend can be devastating. In the near term, those with short employment histories qualify for very little in the way of unemployment benefits and those who never entered the workforce qualify for nothing.

In the long term, there’s the blow to morale, the possible resort to black-market or criminal activity, and the reality, according to the progressive think tank Center for American Progress, that each currently unemployed American between 20 and 24 stands to earn $22,000 less in wages over the next decade than if the recession hadn’t occurred.

The entire taxpaying public pays for the damage. Young Invincibles calculates that unemployed 18-34-year-olds cost the federal and state governments a total of $8.9 billion in lost tax revenue, unemployment benefits, and welfare payments per year. New Jersey loses more than $50 million annually on these direct and missed opportunity costs, a statistic that places it seventh nationally.

Middle-Skill Workers

As some politicians, economists, and pundits lament the disappearance of the middleclass, a new catch-phrase is emerging that can offer hope to millions of young people who strive for a so-called “middle-class” job but don’t plan to attend a four-year college or university. The term in question is “middle skill” and in a 2009 report on the subject, the Brookings Institution described these jobs as ones that “generally require some education and training beyond high school but less than a bachelor’s degree.” Examples include police and firefighters, detectives, engineering technicians, electricians, plumbers, welders, and many healthcare support personnel such as dental hygienists, radiologic technicians, and respiratory therapists.

The report notes that some middle-skill positions saw their inflation-adjusted wages rise significantly more than the average American worker’s between 1997 and 2005, and while these types of professions lost a seven percent share of total employment from 1985 to 2006, they still make up half of all American jobs. What’s more, Brookings predicts that 45 percent of all job openings in the next decade will be in the “broad occupational categories that are mostly middle skill,” while one-third will come from high-skill occupational categories and less than one-quarter will fall into the low-skill (mostly service) occupations.

“Overall, we conclude that the demand for middle-skill workers will remain quite robust relative to its supply,” wrote the authors.

In New Jersey, demand and projections for middle-skill jobs reflect national trends. Calling middle-skill workers “the backbone of New Jersey’s economy,” the National Skills Coalition (NSC) found that while these positions account for 48 percent of the state’s supply, only 35 percent of the state’s workers have adequate training for them.

“Middle-skill jobs are key to our nation's health, its infrastructure, and its economic growth. Many of these jobs cannot be outsourced: from the care of our sick and elderly, to the repair of our computerized cars, to the running and maintenance of our factories' advanced machinery, to the construction of our nation's bridges and buildings,” wrote the NSC in a state-by-state report.

But while academics speak frequently about attracting students into the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields as a path to a well-paid, highly skilled career with longevity. Few people discuss the reality that half of all STEM jobs don’t require a college degree. According to the NSC, STEM careers in nursing and carpentry pay more than $11,000 annually over the state average for all occupations, though it should be noted that an increasing number of hospitals nationwide require their nurses to obtain a four-year degree.

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