Help wanted in Wisconsin: Workers with 'middle skills’
In 1978, country singer Waylon Jennings wrote a hit song, “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”
Jennings died in 2002. But the new version of that for Wisconsin parents might be, “Mammas Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Middle-Skill Workers.”
Page 42 of the official summary of Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed 2014-15 budget says:
“Wisconsin needs more workers with middle skills—skills that require more than a high school degree but less than a college degree—particularly in manufacturing.”
To illustrate that point, Walker’s budget summary includes a pie chart that estimates that only 32 percent of future job training will require a bachelor’s or higher university or college degree.
According to the state Department of Workforce Development, the educational requirements needed for all other future jobs are: associate’s degree, 24 percent; moderate-length on-the-job training, 16 percent; short-term on-the-job training and post-secondary vocational training, both 12 percent; and long-term on-the-job training, 4 percent.
Another chart says future jobs will cluster in health care and the related fields of science, technology, engineering and math, which educators call the STEM fields.
On his Internet site, the governor is even more blunt: “By 2018, 66 percent of Wisconsin’s 3.2 million jobs will require a high school degree or above, but below a bachelor’s. Despite that, only 25 percent of high school seniors want to attend a technical school.”
Walker and experts say technical colleges are best positioned to train middle-skill workers.
To help those colleges do better at that, Walker’s budget includes “performance funding” for technical colleges—or “incentives—to refocus on the system’s core mission and increase activities related to alternative pathways to credentials, shorter certificate programs and specialized training for employers.”
Specifically, starting in the 2014-15 school year, 10 percent of a technical college’s state aid will be based on factors such as “student job placement rates, degrees and certificates awarded in high-demand fields, the number of courses or programs with industry-validated curriculum, the transition of adult students from basic education to skills training—and training provided to employers.”
Also, each technical college’s “performance” subsidy will grow by 10 percent per year. By 2019-20, “100 percent of state general aid will be distributed based on performance,” under Walker’s plan.
And, just to be sure, the state Department of Administration—headed by a Walker appointee—must approve any “performance funding” award to a technical college.
Why will technical colleges, which retrain laid-off older workers, have future state aid tied to “performance” bonuses? They “must be encouraged to align resources with state priorities,” Walker aides warned.
Other experts agree on the growing need for middle-skill workers.
“Occupational projections for the state reveal that 70 percent of projected openings through 2020 will be in jobs requiring a high school diploma or less,” professor Marc Levine of UW-Milwaukee’s Center for Economic Development wrote in a major February report.
Wisconsin’s problem, Levine added, “is a jobs gap—not a ‘skills’ gap.” Industry groups instantly challenged that statement.
Wisconsin colleges and universities, however, continue to turn out graduates who can’t find high-skill jobs, Levine said. Three times as many Milwaukee-area bartenders had bachelor’s or graduate degrees in 2010 as in 2000, for example, and 30 percent of Milwaukee-area retail sales clerks also had bachelor’s or graduate degrees in 2010—twice the percentage in 2000.
In Wisconsin, “The crisis of underemployment is not likely to abate anytime soon,” Levin added.
Anthony Carnevale, executive director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, also underscored the need for middle-skill workers nationally in the January edition of the Community College Journal:
“Almost a third—17 million out of 55 million—of new job openings between 2010 and 2020 are going to require middle skills, as baby boomers retire and new jobs are created.”
And those jobs pay better than bartending or retail sales, Carnevale noted.
“Middle-skill jobs are also important because they often pay middle-class wages. For example, 62 percent of middle-skill jobs pay $35,000 or more per year and 14 percent pay $75,000 or more. What’s even more striking is that middle-skill jobs can pay more than jobs for workers with bachelor’s degrees.
“For instance, 31 percent of entry-level associate-degree jobs and 27 percent of jobs requiring some form of licensure or certification pay more than entry-level BA positions.”
Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. This column reflects his personal perspective. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.