Demanding a Skilled Labor Supply

As the mortgage crisis and other factors continue to hammer the
nation’s economy, employment and training should be an integral part of the
strategy to help families stay on track. Yet a segment of the labor market that
offers solid opportunity and livable wages continues to be overlooked.

Scores of employers have vacant middle-skill jobs— those that require more
than a high-school education, but less than a four-year degree—and are
scrambling to find qualified workers to fill them. Many of these jobs are ones
communities depend on such as fire-fighters, nurses, electricians, and truck
drivers. But many people assume a four-year degree is the only path to a good
job, so not enough consideration is given to preparing workers for middle-skill
positions that can be acquired through training.

“In truth, communities throughout Illinois rely on middle-skill jobs,” says
Andy Van Kleunen, executive director of The Workforce Alliance (TWA).
“Middleskill workers are the police officers and fire fighters who keep us safe.
They are the nurses, therapists, and medical technicians who keep us healthy.
They are the air traffic controllers, electricians, and mechanics who keep our
infrastructure up and running. These are local, hands-on jobs that are unlikely
to be outsourced to other countries.”

TWA is a national coalition of community-based organizations, community
colleges, unions, business leaders, and local officials advocating for public
policies that invest in upgrading the skills of America’s workers, so they can
better support their families and help American business compete in today’s

In 2007, TWA launched Skills2Compete, a campaign which calls on federal and
state policymakers to embrace a new vision for economic and education policy.
The vision is that every U.S. worker should have access to the equivalent of at
least two years of education or training past high school—leading to a
vocational credential, industry certification, or the completion of two years of

A recent grant from the Joyce Foundation helps to support this effort, which
is especially important in the Midwest where 50 percent of the jobs require more
than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree. There is an
inaccurate impression that the vast majority of middle class jobs have been
offshored and replaced with either low-wage service jobs or very high-skilled,
knowledge-based jobs. In reality, many skilled jobs are going unfilled because
of a limited supply of trained workers.

“Workforce development issues—including middleskill job training—are not
necessarily on the political radar right now,” says Van Kleunen. “Some
policymakers think of employment tracks as either Wal-Mart (low skill) or Wall
Street (high skill), but research shows there are many good opportunities in

Skills2Compete seeks to change this misperception. Two-hundred
fifty diverse organizations—including many employers—have endorsed the effort
and its goals, and positive media coverage is starting to boost the issue’s
visibility. Marc Schulman, president of The Eli’s Cheesecake Company in Chicago,
expressed his views: “Our company continues to need mid-level, hands-on skill
sets from our workers, but we face a challenge to fill these positions. As we
compete in this global economy, we need to be more productive and innovative.
This is a concern for not only our company but for our state’s

Public perception is another obstacle to attracting a skilled workforce for
middle-skill job opportunities. For example, there is a critical shortage within
the industrial distribution sector, largely due to the public’s view that
manufacturing is a dying industry. Yet the industrial distribution industry has
an estimated 240,000 jobs available each year. To compound this issue, the
majority of workers in this sector are over 40 years old. Phyllis Russell,
executive director of the Power Transmission Distributors Association Foundation
(PTDAF) says, “We need to provide training for young workers to enter this
industry, otherwise this sector will be hit hard as Baby Boomers start
retiring.” In response, PTDAF has begun developing industryspecific curriculum
materials to assist community colleges with developing training courses that
meet the needs of local employers.

“We work with an advisory committee made up of local employers,” says Jerry
Weber, president of Kankakee Community College. “This allows us to provide adult
learners with cutting-edge skills to fill jobs available right here in their own

The lack of middle-skill job training has broader implications on the U.S.
economy. Harry Holzer, professor of public policy at Georgetown University says,
“Failure to invest in needed training creates substantial costs—direct and
indirect—for employees and employers across the nation.” He states that post
secondary training, “helps people move out of poverty and into better jobs,” and
that, “good jobs have been proven to serve as some measure of prevention against
various social issues.”

Research shows that poor potential earnings tend to drive many workers,
especially low-income minority men, out of the labor market altogether. Young
men with low earnings and employment are much more likely than others to engage
in crime and more likely to father children outside of marriage. Crime in
particular imposes enormous cost on the United States—as much as $1-2 trillion
per year—by some estimates. For employers, the cost of an unskilled labor force
also means less productivity— hard-to-fill job vacancies often force employers
to spend more money on recruitment, or to even lower their hiring standards.

Overall, the United States is falling behind in training and educating its
workers. Other countries are catching up and surpassing U.S. efforts because
they have invested heavily in raising the skills of their own populations.
Luckily for Americans, there are many diverse pathways to economic success.
Middle-skill jobs make up 40-50 percent of the labor market, and the demand for
workers to fill these jobs will likely remain robust. Skills2Compete brings
needed attention to this issue. If successful, it could help move more low-wage
workers into middle-skill jobs and fill gaps in the labor market.