We recently read with great interest the New York Times opinion piece, How Technology Wrecks the Middle Class. David Autor and David Dorn thoughtfully analyze how computers have replaced middle-skilled workers in managing large amounts of data, performing calculations, and executing repetitive tasks in fields such as bookkeeping, clerical work, and manufacturing. The authors’ ideas are not new, but they push toward potential solutions in a novel and heartening way. In particular, they formulate a prototype for middle-skill jobs that will thrive in the future economy. How can we in the workforce and economic development field capitalize on the potential for these jobs?
Many in the field have seized upon the “college payoff” as proof that the proportion of Americans that go to college should be greatly expanded. Autor and Dorn raise an unpopular but accurate truth that not everyone is going to be able to succeed in college; for proof, they point to low graduation rates. We would add this important additional angle: the “college payoff” is strongest for those who graduate from selective colleges. Those who graduate from non-selective colleges receive much less benefit from their degree in the work force; their diminished earning potential is often compounded by mountains of student debt. They then go on to present three types of jobs – what can the workforce and economic development field learn from them?
The authors present three strata of job types that will thrive in our technological present and future:
1. Professional and managerial jobs. These positions, which require college education or advanced training, are expanding because of they usually result in harnessing technology to improve their own productivity. These folks are generally doing fine on their own and are not the focus of the workforce system.
2. “Manual task-intensive jobs.” Computers cannot do these jobs because they require adaptability and manual dexterity. Examples include cooking, cleaning, and truck driving. The authors point out that these jobs are plentiful but pay poorly because many people can do them. For the workforce field, the challenge here is to improve conditions and pay for these types of jobs, while recognizing the market forces that are degrading conditions and pay.
3. Middle-skill jobs that combine routine technical tasks with some adaptability, dexterity, and interaction with people. Examples include skilled trades, customer service reps, and medical paraprofessionals. Personal services, such as personal trainers and coaches, are also included in this group becoming known as “the new artisans.”
For the workforce and economic development field, this can be a useful way of categorizing jobs that can help us look for the next growth area. But one potential future challenge that the authors don’t acknowledge is that these wages may not stay high as more people enter these types of jobs. Historically, production workers earned middle-class wages because of the value of what they produced, which is much harder to measure for a service worker. They also were able to demand higher wages through collective bargaining or because of worker shortages. Because many workers in skilled repair and service jobs either are or will be in smaller workplaces, collective bargaining may have less of an impact—if it’s available at all.
Our field must find creative ways of helping both workers and businesses navigating this new landscape. The authors do not consider the policy changes that could encourage growth (much less the right kind of growth that keeps wages high) in these types of occupations beyond a brief allusion to “postsecondary vocational training.” In the heyday of manufacturing, a worker could apply at the door of a factory and receive all the training needed on the job. The new middle-skill jobs require some education and training prior to starting work, and businesses show a clear preference for workers with experience. To bridge the gap between the demand for middle-skill workers and getting real workers the skills they need, the workforce development system can and should play a vital policy role. Workforce agencies can work with industry to create demand-driven training programs to ensure that businesses find prepared workers right in the local market. Those same agencies can then connect the right individuals to these programs—those that stand to benefit the most from opportunities that they otherwise wouldn’t know about or wouldn’t qualify for without a little help. Here in New York City, the next mayor would be wise to consider how he or she could focus the City’s resources to make these connections possible. As a field, we must take the thinking about new middle-skill jobs and apply it before technology leaves workers behind.