Many midlevel jobs go missing as market changes
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AUSTIN, Texas -- Keith Glass gets the same question virtually every time he leads a tour of Samsung Austin Semiconductor's factory: Where are all the people?
"All those old entry-level positions have been replaced by robots," said Mr. Glass, the facility's curriculum strategist. "An operator position is much higher and more technically advanced than it used to be. That person now sits in front of computer instead of moving wafers by hand."
The same workforce changes Mr. Glass has witnessed in the past three decades have become increasingly symptomatic of a deeper transformation across the country's middle-tier occupations.
The swath of middle-skills jobs that once supported a robust American middle class has thinned, leading to more polarization of the job market. In the past three decades, middle-skills occupations have dropped from nearly 60 percent of total U.S. employment to about 45 percent, according to research by Massachusetts Institute of Technology economics professor David Autor.
The real bulk of job growth is bubbling up at the ends of the spectrum -- in low-pay, low-skill jobs and in higher-wage, highly skilled occupations that more and more often require at least a four-year college degree.
The country is facing a "hollowing out" of the job market's middle tier, as Mr. Autor described it.
Though economists debate the severity of the changes, few argue that a mismatch exists -- a mismatch that presents a critical economic, social and political challenge.
Definitions of this middle tier can vary, in part because "middle-skills" and "middle-wage" don't always refer to the same set of occupations. Broadly speaking, middle-skills jobs require more than high-school diplomas -- whether that's specialized on-the-job training or formal certifications, such as associate degrees. High-skill jobs typically require four-year college degrees.
The rising skills requirements and the evolution of occupations that pay a midtier wage make definitions more difficult to pin down. By most definitions, though, the country faces a dwindling supply of jobs that require a moderate amount of specialized training and pay a middle-class wage.
"It's a different middle now, and we have to change our thinking about what constitutes the middle," said Harry Holzer, public policy professor at Georgetown University. "Middle-wage jobs almost all require some sort of post-secondary training, like an associate's degree."
Mr. Holzer doesn't see as much hollowing-out as Mr. Autor, but he agreed that technology might be the biggest culprit in the contraction of middle-tier jobs. According to Mr. Autor's research, computers and robots have replaced many "routine" tasks, many of them clerical (replaced by information technology) or manufacturing (replaced by robotic technologies)
Employment at both ends of the skills and wages spectrum grew from 1979 to 2009, Mr. Autor found. But over the same period, middle-skills jobs dipped to 45.7 percent of total U.S. employment -- down from 57.3 percent.
Economic downturns have been especially hard on this middle tier, according to economics associate professors Nir Jaimovich at Duke University and Henry Siu at the University of British Columbia. Since the mid-1980s, they found, 92 percent of the job loss in middle-skills occupations occurred within 12 months of a recession. And jobless recoveries, such as the one the nation is in now, are almost solely due to the disappearance of midtier jobs, they said.
The hollowing-out of the middle tier has affected virtually every community in the country, said Jon Hockenyos, president of the economic consulting firm TXP.
The concern, he and others said, is the high-end growth might mask critical issues related to the thinning middle. For many Americans, the jobs that once would have afforded a better life for them and their families aren't coming back. And the new midrange jobs require a different set of skills.
High-tech growth, while of great benefit to a region, doesn't do much for a demographic who hold a high school diploma or less, said Alan Miller, executive director at Workforce Solutions Capital Area in Austin.
First Published July 10, 2012 12:00 am