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Bridging the Middle Skills Gap With Online Education

These are jobs with dignity. These are careers and they can pay much more than bachelor’s degrees do. These are six figure jobs. It’s just taking the leap to recognize that and getting outside your comfort zone.

Dr. Nicole Smith, Research Professor and Chief Economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW)

Over the last 50 years, the fraction of American high school graduates that pursue bachelor’s degrees or higher has steadily increased. Today, about 40 percent of Millennials have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with roughly a quarter of Baby Boomers and 15 percent of the Silent Generation (the generation before the Boomers, born between the 1920s and 1940s).

It’s part of the American Dream for new generations to achieve a higher standard of living than their parents. From an academic standpoint, these statistics can be seen as a crowning achievement. However, in practical economic terms, the increasingly educated labor force has presented some major issues, both from a business perspective and from an individual standpoint.

A 2017 Gallup survey found that a staggering 51 percent of college graduates regret choosing their area of study or wish they’d chosen another path entirely. Bachelor’s degree holders, specifically, were more likely to regret their chosen field of study than any other group (technical/vocational, associate, and postgraduate degree holders.) That’s because many bachelor’s degree holders are having difficulty finding jobs.

What was once a surefire route to a prosperous future 30 years ago is now a riskier investment. Inexperienced bachelor’s degree holders are finding upon entering the workforce that, in many cases, there is a limited number of seats at the table (Harvard Business School, “Bridge the Gap: Rebuilding America’s Middle Skills”). There has been a subsequent lack of employment-ready skills as the degree holders’ experiences may not reflect the needs of the job market. As a result, “malemployment” (overeducated workers taking jobs that historically require less education to qualify for) has been on the rise.

However, while there is something of a surplus of bachelor degree holders, there is a shortage of what academics are calling “middle skills” job candidates. The middle skills sector refers to jobs that require less than four years of college, but more than a high school diploma. This can mean traditionally blue collar jobs such as welding, manufacturing, plumbing, and construction. The term also encompasses other industries, such as the medical field, which needs radiology technicians, pharmacy technicians, and respiratory therapists, to name a few—fields which require less than four years of postsecondary schooling. And companies are having trouble filling these positions.

Addressing this imbalance is not as simple as a mass migration of students from trade schools to liberal arts school; the truth comprises a myriad of causes. Read on to understand what is at the heart of this issue through an interview with an expert.

Meet the Expert: Georgetown University’s Dr. Nicole Smith

Nicole Smith

Dr. Nicole Smith is a research professor and chief economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW), an independent, nonprofit research and policy institute that studies the link between education, career qualifications, and workforce demands. Dr. Smith graduated with honors in economics and mathematics from the University of the West Indies. She received her PhD in economics from American University in Washington, DC

Before joining CEW, Dr. Smith was a faculty member in economics at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania and the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus.

The Causes of the Middle Skills Gap

Dr. Smith revealed three primary drivers of the middle skills gap: the increased pace of upskilling, the poor marketing of the American job landscape, and the stubbornness of gender roles.


Upskilling refers to the new environment created by “the synergy of automation and globalization,” according to a paper from the CEW, where Smith is a research professor. This synergy creates a need for a higher level of skills from employees, resulting in what is called the upskilling of the workforce across industries.

“For instance, there are many manufacturing jobs in the past where you could work your way up from the bottom to the top with simply a high school diploma,” Smith said. Now, in advanced manufacturing, workers are increasingly utilizing computer-based technology in order to complete some of the tasks that had previously been done without a computer.

“As a result, workers are able to be much more productive than they have been in the past, when coupled with a machine, but what this means for the individual is that you need to be certified to use that machine, to demonstrate the competency to use that machine,” Smith said.

“That means the same worker will have to go back to school to get that certification, to get that combination of credits for a couple months, just to demonstrate their competency in using that particular machine or that piece of technology,” Smith added. “So, upskilling has grown a lot faster than the ability of the system to provide the type of training to do it.”

Poor Marketing

Another main reason that middle skills jobs are going unfilled may be as simple as a marketing or public relations issue. Millennials will tell you that the pursuit of the bachelor’s degree was instilled in them by their parents and schools from an early age, while other pathways, like blue collar jobs, apprenticeships, or associate degrees, were not pitched to them as legitimate options. As a result, many fresh-out-of-high-school students who may have been interested in middle skills careers never had the chance to consider alternatives to bachelor’s degrees.

“Parents didn’t want their kids to go through that—‘dirty jobs’ that require you to get your hands dirty,” said Michelle Massie, the director of Opportunity Nation and strategic initiatives, a non-profit organization that is concerned with connecting America’s youth with employment opportunities. “While we were pushing people to do one thing [to pursue bachelor’s degrees], we were creating a gulf in which these other jobs still had to be filled.”

“When you think of middle skills jobs, you think of a hard hat, dirty work [and] having to wear cover-alls. People fail to recognize [middle skills careers] can end up paying more than a BA,” Smith said. “There are a lot of people who could potentially do this job, do it well, and get paid well for it, but choose not to do it because they don’t know if that’s the type of job they want to be involved in.”

Both Massie and Smith emphasized that the stigma of blue collar jobs as unskilled, undignified, or illegitimate are false perceptions that need to be changed in our collective cultural zeitgeist.

The Gender Problem

Another interesting aspect to the shortage of middle skills workers is rooted in gender roles. Between 1950 and 2000, women increased their share of the workforce from 30 percent to 47 percent. But predictably, they did not enter traditionally male-dominated industries and careers at the same rate. This trend has stuck. Many of the jobs in fields like construction, manufacturing—and even non-physical jobs like science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)—are still significantly male-dominated.

Women dominate professions in social services, education, healthcare, and caretaking, but still make up a small percentage of the manufacturing, finance, engineering, and construction workforce.

“Because of automation and the physical aspects of the job, ‘the brawn’ now requires more ‘brain,’” Smith said. “You don’t necessarily need to be able to lift 50 pounds anymore. Women can do these jobs now, but aren’t necessarily pursuing them because there’s just no history of someone else who looks like you doing that job.”

This means that the middle skills positions that overlap with these male-dominated sectors could be missing out on a sea of highly capable potential workers by proxy.

The Current Economic Boom

If you zoom out of the plight of the Millennial bachelor’s degree holder’s struggle to find employment upon graduation, the reality is, we are currently in the middle of an economic boom. In other words, it is currently a worker’s market.

“We are in fact in a period of economic prosperity that is unprecedented,” Smith said. “It’s been 50 years since we last saw an unemployment rate of 3.5 percent. With unemployment being so low, it’s much more difficult for employers to find workers, and to find workers in middle skills.”

“It’s been a challenge for them. There’s competition among employers,” Smith said. “We’re hoping, as economists, to see some of that play out in increased wages.”

Are Middle Skills Jobs “Worth It?”

With demand for middle skills jobs being so high, the next logical question is: Is the return on investment worth it? Does the extra financial investment in a couple years of college really make a difference, rather than just entering the workforce with a highschool diploma?

“The answer is a resounding yes,” Smith says. “Many associate degrees, technical degrees, and engineering certifications pay tremendously. They can pay even more than some bachelor’s degrees in liberal arts.”

The lesson here is that it’s not necessarily the number of years that you spend in school, or the achievement of a bachelor’s or master’s degree that guarantees a higher earning potential.

“What you take [in school] influences what you make,” Smith says. “What really matters is understanding where you’re going to land [after you graduate].”

Can Online Education Help Bridge the Gap?

In the age of automation and digitalization, more students are considering education models that break the mold of the traditional brick-and-mortar liberal arts school route. From 2012 to 2016, the total number of students studying strictly on physical college campuses dropped by more than one million, or about 6 percent, according to a report from the Babson Survey Research Group (“Grade Increase – Tracking Distance Education in the United States” 2018).

As society begins to take notice of the over-saturation of bachelor’s degrees in the workforce and looks to alternative options, could the online education model be useful? The answer is yes, but with some limitations. You can’t fully eliminate the classroom element of learning, especially for the more hands-on jobs, like manufacturing.

“Some jobs that might require physically manipulating and handing a tool or equipment. Things like drawing blood…you have to actually hold a human being and tie that tourniquet and draw that blood at least once to demonstrate that you can do it,” Smith said.

But that doesn’t mean that online learning is a totally irrelevant medium to these subjects. The solution? Hybrid models.

“There are mixed model programs that [have] part of the training online, but require that you find a center or location that you can actually go and try the machine or lift the motor, so you can understand how things physically feel,” Smith said.

For instance, there are brick-and-mortar schools that offer technical degrees and other shorter programs, like Central Oregon Community College, which hosts much of its curriculum online. Its pharmacy technician program, for example, teaches medical terminology, anatomy and functions of the human body, pharmacy software, and drug names in an online setting. However, there are still in-person meetings for students to learn aspects of the job that cannot be taught virtually, such as practicing medication preparation.

“I think it’s easy to incorporate those technical applications into online learning,” Massie added. “You still need that practicum. You need to meet people and have that interaction with people, but I want folks to understand that it can definitely be a mix of job skills and the environment. In terms of the learning environment, there can definitely be some variety.”

Some industries or professions, of course, are more ripe for online learning than others. Massie named cybersecurity experts and information security analysts as some examples—both positions require less than four years of school. But even courses in construction and management and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) are available online through schools such as Purdue University.

In addition to online degree programs, massive open online courses (MOOCs) through Coursera, edX, GetSmarter, Lynda, and KhanAcademy allow individuals to build their skills in a short period of time for free (or close to it), giving job candidates the ability to add to their intellectual toolboxes while maintaining more regular work schedules than traditional full-time college students can reasonably manage.

Both Massie and Smith said that because online learning is still in its formative phase, students need to be mindful of choosing a quality program by looking into the school or program’s accreditation, as well as researching its reputation in their industry of choice.

“There has to be vetting and making sure that whether its a brick-and-mortar school or a virtual school that students are coming out ready for the job force,” Massie added.

Whether you’re a recent high school graduate or an experienced adult interested in adding to your current skill set or forging a new path entirely, you may want to consider a career in middle skills, and perhaps training in an online setting.

“People are going to have to go back and be trained and be prepared to go back to school,” Smith said. “It’s lifelong learning. This is the new reality.”

On a final note, Smith added: “These are jobs with dignity. These are careers and they can pay much more than bachelor’s degrees do. These are six figure jobs. It’s just taking the leap to recognize that and getting outside your comfort zone.”

Nina Chamlou

Nina Chamlou is an avid freelance writer from Portland, OR. She writes about economic trends, business, technology, digitization, supply chain, healthcare, education, aviation, and travel. You can find her floating around the Pacific Northwest in diners and coffee shops, or traveling abroad, studying the locale from behind her MacBook. Visit her website at