Words and Phrases I Dislike: “Middle-Skilled Jobs”

WSJ has a good article about three people who have put themselves on good career trajectories without benefit of 4-year college degrees.  One is a welder, one is a nurse, and one is an owner of franchised fast-food restaurants.  Unfortunately, however, the article uncritically uses the term “middle-skilled jobs,” which is seen increasingly in articles about the job market.  These jobs are said to be those which require more than high school and less than four years of college, and typically involve some sort of technical or practical training.

“Middle-skilled”….really?  Is the job of a toolmaker in a factory really less-skilled than the entry-level job likely to be obtained by someone with an undergraduate Sociology degree?  Is a nurse’s job less-skilled than the work likely to be assigned to someone hired on the basis of his English degree?  Does owning and operating a food truck really require less skill than the kind of tasks typically assigned to an undergraduate Business major?  Is the work of an air traffic controller less-skilled than the kind of a job likely to result from a major in Victim Studies?

It is good that there is increasing recognition of good career paths not requiring college degrees; however, the term “Middle-Skilled Jobs” is misleading and contributes to the continuation of credential-worship.

17 thoughts on “Words and Phrases I Dislike: “Middle-Skilled Jobs””

  1. The whole WSJ article is not presented, but my snooty detector went off.

    The owner of the FF restaurant can probably get by personally w/o a college degree, but he probably relies on someone like an accountant to keep his books and do his taxes who has college training.

    The nurse may start out without any post-secondary training, but if she wants to be more than a nurse assistant, or whatever the lowest rung of nursing is, she is going to need some college. Not only that, but periodic refreshers to make sure her nursing skills and training have kept up with advances in the medical field. If the nurse can’t cut the additional training, her upward career arc is going to hit a wall.

    The welder can’t escape totally unscathed. If he wants to be more than just a tacker (someone who puts the pieces of a weldment together with a few small welds), the welder must undergo periodic certification tests where he actually demonstrates his skill and knowledge of welding processes and technology, how to read a fabrication drawing and perform the proper welds indicated, and weld a series of test pieces which are tested to determine if the strength of the welding is sufficient. Structural welders, pipe welders, and other types of welders, where the trade has not been automated, cannot work if they don’t have current certification.

    If the student with the undergrad sociology wanted to hedge her bets on a career choice, she would take a night class at the local trade school to learn welding, being an electrician or a plumber, or one of the other skilled trades.

    People think that the skilled trades are low-paid work. This is not true in all circumstances. A good plumber, electrician, carpenter, or welder can probably make an annual income rivaling or exceeding that of the average lawyer or doctor. The amount of experience and skill which the tradesman has goes a long way to determining his income.

    A modern society can get along swimmingly without sociology majors, but if it can’t produce enough welders, plumbers, and electricians, it’s literally ‘lights out’.

  2. Agreed, the term “middle-skilled” strikes me as mostly inappropriate when trying to describe the level “more than high school, but less than college.” They could come up with a better term. (They are journalists after all, isn’t wordsmithing suppose to be a skill they should have?)

    One reason is that college doesn’t necessarily teach you any “skills.” Educates you, yes, but not necessarily skills.

    Another reason is that getting an education other than college is just as much an education – perhaps not “book learning,” but still an education. And more likely than not to involve more “skills” than a 4-year college degree.

  3. JP…there’s a distinction between post-secondary training and 4-year college degree. Yes, the welder, the nurse, and the air traffic controller are all going to need training in addition to on-the-job experience; my point is that their skills should not be considered automatically “lesser” if they were obtained in a place without a grassy campus, a Latin motto (which few of the faculty and even fewer of the students can read), and an elegant mansion for the President.

  4. I think “the press” would do well to read something like The Road to Serfdom. They often subscribe to the idea that if the government just did enough Planning and pulled all the right levers, pushed the right buttons, took money from here and placed it there, then they’d be able to create jobs in this or that sector, make this cost more and that cost less. In short, operate the economy and the society like it were a machine.

    The idea that the government is only there to create a fair and balanced framework upon which free people build a society and an economy has not yet glimmered into their imaginations. They have a Marxist view of society. The fact that Marxism has been a spectacular failure in every place where the experiment has been run is apparently unknown to them. They’ll be wagging their fingers and insisting we only need to rearrange the deck chairs as the Titanic sinks.

  5. I missed the term “middle skilled” in the article. I read the whole article and was struck by this bit:

    Ms. Gonzales’s next boss, Aziz Hashim, has his own rags-to-riches story. He started out in what he calls a “lower middle-class” immigrant family in Los Angeles and earned a prestigious degree as an electrical engineer—then quit abruptly to go into the franchise business. Today, his company, NRD Holdings, owns more than 50 franchise outlets, and he is seen as a rising star in the industry.

    I know several doctors who bought franchises and know of several others that left medicine to go into construction or some other field. We will see more of this as medicine gets more enmeshed in bureaucracy. Mercedes Benz mechanics make as much as primary care docs.

    I talk to a lot of kids going into the military and am struck by those with very high scores on the ASQT. They are going to intelligence school to learn languages or joining the navy to go to nuke school. The loser kids are the ones who are doing drugs or who can’t show up on time the second day on the job. We need more apprenticeship programs. My nephew dropped out of college and joined the Marine Corps about ten years ago. When he finished his tour as a helicopter mechanic, he went back and finished college, then joined an apprenticeship with the elevator repairman union. He finished that and got a job with Otis Elevator. He became a supervisor but has now gone back to the field as he makes more money.

    Apprenticeships or the military are good career paths for kids who aren’t college academic scholarship material. Some kids are smart enough to see that. That was an interesting article. So was the one on the LinkedIn founder.

  6. Not sure we can blame the “Middle-Skill” term on journalists; I’ve also seen it used directly by economists.

    The term sometimes seems to be used in reference to jobs that are considerably more routinized than the three in the WSJ article.

    Here’s a related piece by the Dallas Fed…they seem to be trying to actually look at the content of the jobs, rather than just the education required to get them. On the other hand, there are things in the article that don’t make a lot of sense to me….for example, they say “Cognitive nonroutine jobs are usually high- skill jobs (in green) that require performing abstract tasks such as problem solving, intuition and persuasion,” but then in their classification grid, they place “Sales” in the “Cognitive Routine” category, along with clerical work. Sales, of course, is *all about* persuasion, and often about problem-solving as well.


  7. Just as there is a difference between tangible goods/capital and derivative goods/capital [which later category makes up most of our economy]; there is a difference between tangible jobs that actually produce a tangible good or service, and those who shuffle paper at one or more theoretical remove from reality.

    Granting that there is a need for an infrastructure to allow production and distribution of real goods and services; the vast majority of the jobs held by credentialed types, especially in the fields of government and education, are there to justify each others paychecks and are a drag on the economy. Without real functions, in hard times they will be found to be superfluous and the occupants will be up a certain slow-flowing body of water near Olongapo, Philippines.

    If you actually do something or make something; you not only still may be able to do it in hard times, you have skills that transfer to other means of making a living. That is a situation that an EEOC Assistant Compliance Officer for the EPA is not likely to find themselves in.

  8. Have engineering degrees, worked in my industry, oil and gas exploration, for over 50 years – there is nothing middle skilled about a good high pressure vessel/pipeline or stainless steel welder those guys are good! Nurses and people who run franchises – skilled hard working people and I have a great deal of respect for them. These people need good arithmetic skills, good reading skill and the ability to plan and visualize and the ones who succeed in these professions are more competent than most college grads.

  9. I think your objection is a bit misdirected: it would perhaps be better to object to the notion that any old graduate is highly skilled.

  10. “high- skill jobs … that require performing abstract tasks such as problem solving … and persuasion,” but then in their classification grid, they place “Sales” in the “Cognitive Routine” category…. Sales, of course, is *all about* persuasion, and often about problem-solving as well.”

    You might almost think that they’re trying to rationalise a distinction that is, at bottom, mere snobbery.

  11. The country has been crying for good people in th trades that are looked down by so many. Have a good friend who became a plumber – a good one – and made 3x what I made.

    There’s a lot of liberal arts grads unemployed and living with mom/dad these days – with 6 figure college debts.

  12. I’m in the UK where “Skilled” has a specific meaning and the WSJ usage would be plain wrong. Here it means a manual worker who has served a recognised apprenticeship and obtained the appropriate qualification, and works at a job that requires that qualification. In safety-critical jobs such as gas fitting annual re-accreditation is required. The welder is a good example.
    Professional – doctor, engineer, lawyer, school-teacher etc -is a different category requiring a degree plus professional qualification and membership of a professional body. Professional qualifications are mostly on a different axis from skills, so that a professional engineer does not have the manual skills used in his industry. Nursing is an exception – a nurse must be skilled before (s)he can become a professional.
    The majority of people, both graduates and not, work at unregulated jobs where skilled and professional do not apply. These jobs may require skills and/or professionalism but there’s no formal structure.

  13. The root cause of the misuse of the term ‘middle skilled’ is because journalists literally don’t understand how anything is done. They tend to use explanations cooked up by ‘experts’, in this case educators. The educational establishment believes, indeed is built on, the concept that everyone should be required to go to them prior to being able to make a living.

  14. I am not an expert on the UK system but I think they do a much better job of aligning education to careers than we do in the USA.

    Many people in the US go to college for “a degree” of sorts but then there isn’t any sort of path for them when they graduate. This is particularly true for most of the liberal arts curriculum (excluding Ivy League where just graduating from those schools can get you in the door somewhere with all the connections) and also of other majors at third rate colleges.

    If Dan chimes in he could tell you about the shortage of qualified HVAC guys out there in the union and how much money there is to be made by anyone willing to join that field.

    It isn’t surprising that doctors and engineers go into owning their own businesses. They are some of the most intelligent people and why wouldn’t they want to get out of a field where you sell your time by the hour for some of the high upside of being your own boss? There also is the “low upside” of businesses that fail but those people tend to not talk a lot so you only hear one side of the equation.

  15. Ed in Texas said ” journalists literally don’t understand how anything is done”. Not so very long ago if a journalist wanted to know the meaning of “skilled” he could have just walked down to the basement of his newspaper building and seen how it was printed. I assume there’s still a print WSJ, even if the printing’s contracted out – don’t the investigative reporters have that much curiosity?

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