Middle-skill jobs in Georgia will surge. Will we have a ready workforce?

As  low-skill jobs disappear, highly specialized jobs emerge in which people must operate and maintain the machines that are taking their places. These new middle-skill jobs require more than a high school credential but less than a college degree.

Credit: Mark Lennihan

Credit: Mark Lennihan

A new report released today by the Southern Regional Education Board predicts a collision course between educational attainment in the South and a changing job market in which employees will need increasingly sophisticated skills.

An interstate education compact of 16 Southern states, the nonprofit SREB began in 1948 to help direct educational policy and drive economic development. The organization’s new report, “Unprepared and Unaware Upskilling the Workforce for a Decade of Uncertainty,” notes:

In SREB states in 2017, more than 12 percent of adults ages 18 to 64 — over 9 million — had less than a high school education, and 28 percent — some 21 million — had a high school credential and no more. These adults will need significant training and education to obtain the skills they need to keep up with technological advancements in today's job market.

Retraining older workers is a complex task. People long out of school may not want to return to the classroom. After plant closings, for example, we have seen workers opt for unemployment rather than undergo retraining for new jobs.

A while back, I talked with Jeff Strohl, director of research at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, about that reluctance. "I would be scared, too, if my industry died," he said. "A lot of promises have been made to workers and not kept. Workers have to believe the training itself leads to immediate employment, not the promise of employment. I don't think many people want to purposely go on nonstop unemployment, but they also don't want to make a bad gamble."

Now, we train workers in specific skills for a specific job, but don’t fortify them with retrenching skills in the event that job disappears and they have to learn and adapt. We also need to focus on general skills that teach workers how to learn and how to leverage their skill sets in new environments.

Among the evidence presented in the SREB report:

-As technology continues to advance in the workplace, the employment gap between those with postsecondary education or credentials and those without is expected to grow. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that by 2030 between 3 and 14 percent of the global workforce will need to be able to perform a completely different job function than the one they did in 2016. McKinsey estimates that all workers will need to adapt in some way to working more closely with machines and that if jobs are automated at a rapid pace the outcome could be dramatic: up to 44 percent of current work activities in the United States could be automated by 2030.

--As these low-skill jobs disappear, highly specialized jobs emerge in which people must operate and maintain the machines that are taking their places. These new middle-skill jobs require more than a high school credential but less than a college degree, and these too will become increasingly sophisticated as technology advances. In 2016, middle-skill jobs accounted for 54 percent of the U.S. labor market. But just 44 percent of working-age adults nationwide were trained to a middle-skill level.

--By 2016, blue-collar occupations, such as manufacturing and construction jobs, made up 21 percent of employment in the U.S. workforce — down 7 percentage points from 1991. During that same time, middle-skill service jobs, such as healthcare, information technology and white-collar business services added 2.7 million positions — accounting for 77 percent of middle-skill job growth. According to the National Skills Coalition, vacancies in middle-skill jobs will be the greatest threat to state economies in the South. Every high-skill job generally requires a team of middle-skilled supporters. Doctors, lawyers and scientists need teams of qualified, technically-trained workers to support their work, such as licensed nurses and paralegals. Manufacturing plants likewise need highly-skilled workers to support their technical equipment.

- States have made too little progress in helping these adults boost academic and workplace skills. By 2017, the region still had nearly 3 million 18- to 64-year-old adults with less than a 9th grade education — an improvement of only 300,000 in nine years. In that same year, 6.3 million adults had reached high school but not graduated, compared with 7.1 million nine years earlier. Over half of these adults were between the ages of 25 and 44.

-Technological advancement in the workplace often creates more jobs than it eliminates. But the new positions often require higher skills.

- In improving adult education programs, states are also faced with decreased funding and enrollments. Funding for these programs fell sharply during the recession and has not fully recovered. States will need to bolster program funding and provide support services if they hope to enroll more adults in education programs. Industry investment could also help states enroll more adults and ensure that they earn credentials that can lead to employment.

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