The 'gray collar' career challenge

In the midst of a changing employment market there is a new class of jobs emerging—occupations with solid job growth and earnings potential. We call these “grey collar” jobs and at their core they are more skilled occupations than, say, garbage pickup or construction (and absolutely no disrespect to those jobs)—but less technologically advanced than being, say, an engineer at Google.

The 21st-century gray collar worker combines hands-on practical skills with selective white collar technical capabilities. We’re seeing this in manufacturing, in particular. Currently, we are experiencing the positive trend of manufacturing coming back to the U.S. from China (in part because energy independence is making it less expensive to build a product in the U.S.). This is something we have wanted to happen for years—think of the rallying cry of “Made in the U.S.”

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But for those middle-skill jobs that are relevant to the industrial sector, the skills gap in the U.S. labor market has become even wider due to the fact that our young people are being advised against training for industrial jobs because of the prevailing wisdom of “experts” and their forecasts that those jobs are going away.

This “skills gap” is having a significant impact on the gray collar jobs market in a range of industries such as diesel engine repair, veterinary technicians, solar panel installation, pharmacy technicians and much more. This has created a scenario where employers are unable to hire the around 6 million people seeking jobs because they don’t possess the necessary skills. And so the middle-skill jobs crisis is a function of lack of foresight and strategy in public policy, economics, development and education.

So, as it turns out, the experts were wrong. And now companies like Caterpillar and other manufacturers literally cannot hire enough people who know how to perform diesel engine work, welding, facility maintenance … the list goes on. A recent survey of 1,600 manufacturing companies in the U.S. shows that nearly half have openings for line workers, skilled trade workers and engineers, but many have trouble filling the positions because it hasn’t been popular to pursue technical education. Manufacturing is thriving in smaller pockets across the country—in the Midwest, manufacturing jobs have increased 8 percent since 2009, while Northeast-based jobs are on the decline.

Recent graduates of the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology (SDSM&T) earned more on average than those graduating from Harvard. The median salary of the Rapid City school’s graduates was $56,700. By contrast, the median salary of Harvard graduates—where the tuition is nearly four times as high as at SDSM&T—was $54,100.

Why? Simply this: There’s such a pent-up demand for people who have basic engineering skills in South Dakota because of new types of energy strategies there.

Some states are taking steps to improve their long-term economic development strategies—such as Florida. The Department of Education in Florida sends a letter to all families who have students in sixth grade that depicts the occupational growth projections for the top jobs over the next 10 years. This is a perfect recognition of the fact that nowadays people are not going to school just to go to school—one reason to further an education is to have better employability. Florida is recognizing that it is in everyone’s economic and civic interest to help enlighten families about the future growth of jobs so that people can strategize regarding where they decide to go to school and how they decide to go to school and what they need to do to be prepared to become (or stay) employed in 10 or 15 years.

We need to address this gray collar career challenge now in order to ensure that our middle-skills gap doesn’t grow larger—so that those who want to work can work.

Britt is CEO of Penn Foster and an operating adviser at Bain Capital Ventures. Penn Foster has been a leader in career-focused distance and hybrid learning for more than 120 years, with more than 133,000 active students in programs focusing on high growth, in-demand fields.

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