Buttressing the Middle: A Case for Reskilling and Upskilling America’s Middle-Skill Workers in the 21st Century

By Irwin Kirsch, Anita Sands, Steve Robins, Madeline Goodman and Rick Tannenbaum – Published by ETS Center for Research on Human Capital and EducationSubscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter

Over the past 40 years, wages have become increasingly stratified between degreed, some-college, high school graduate, and high school dropout workers. With exponential technological development, changing global demand & supply-chains, and lack of public investment in postsecondary education, young adults with less than a degree are entering the labor market without the skills required for well-paying jobs. Further, middle-skill workers employed in fields such as manufacturing and clerical work, “are being displaced or asked to upskill or retrain at rates not witnessed since the industrial revolution.” To improve labor and quality of life outcomes for middle-skill workers, ETS analyzes future skill demands for technical jobs requiring postsecondary education less than a 4-year degree and proposes a theory of action to “significantly improve the literacy, numeracy, and digital skills of adults and put them on a pathway for future educational and occupational growth.” 

Editors’ Note: The ETS report featured a significant amount of important data from a wide variety of sources. We summarized the data points we felt were most salient. 

Job-Skill Classifications and Expectations from Employers
Using a combination of surveys, expert ratings and employer data, the U.S. Department of Labor’s O*NET database can characterize competencies and psychological traits needed for employment “across jobs on five different levels of education, experience and training expectations.” The levels, referred to as “Zones,” are scaled from 1 (little or no preparation needed) to 5 (extensive preparation needed). In this report, ETS focuses on the requirements of jobs in Zones 2 (entry-level jobs generally requiring only a high school degree), 3 (jobs generally requiring some training, credential, or an associate degree), and 4 (jobs generally requiring a bachelor’s degree) to develop an understanding of foundational skills and abilities needed from middle-skill workers throughout their postsecondary/professional careers. 

Skills are defined by ETS as “a set of strategies and processes that enable individuals to acquire and work with information within a specific performance domain,” generally developed over time and are an observable determinate of job performance.  For jobs in Zone 4, nearly all require each of the following competencies: active learning (95.5%), coordination (97.7%), and complex problem-solving (93.2%). Similarly, most jobs in Zone 3 require active learning (62.5%), coordination (76.8%), and complex problem-solving (84.8%). The majority of jobs in Zone 2, described as “on-ramp jobs” by ETS, do not require these skills, but can lead to Zone 3 and 4 jobs in combination with postsecondary attainment. 

Abilities are defined as “relatively stable psychological characteristics that allow individuals to perform particular types of tasks” and have similar percentages of jobs requiring specific characteristics across Zones 3 & 4. However, there is a large disparity between the percentage of jobs in Zone 3 and 4 requiring “fluency of ideas” and “originality” abilities. Zone 3 requires fluency of ideas for 33% of jobs (versus 79.5% in Zone 4) and 25.9% of jobs in Zone 3 require originality (versus 75% in Zone 4). This data suggests a threshold where higher-level jobs are likely to expect workers to solve increasingly complex problems and tasks. Finally, for Zone 2 jobs, 50.7% require written comprehension and 53.6% involve inductive reasoning. Zone 2 jobs requiring these cognitive traits may serve as good opportunities for entry-level workers to develop abilities required in higher-level jobs. 

O*NET’s data provides evidence of a large overlap in skills and abilities required for Zone 3 & 4 jobs, suggesting that many jobs requiring bachelor’s degrees could be applicable to the skill sets and characteristics of individuals with postsecondary education below a four-year degree. Also, the data shows a large skill-gap between Zones 2 & 3, supporting that there is a significant need for middle-skill, non-degree career pathways. 

Employment Trends
According to O*NET, only 23% of jobs below Zone 3 are considered to have a “bright outlook,” or are expected to have employment grow by at least 7% and/or have at least 100,000 job openings from 2018 to 2028. Significantly, 52% of jobs in Zones 3 & 4 are considered to have a bright outlook over the same period. 

A report from McKinsey Global Institute, predicting the “distribution of skill labor hours” to be demanded by the U.S. economy from 2016 to 2030, found that higher cognitive, social & emotional, and technological skill hours will increase by 9, 26, and 60 percent respectively. 

Literacy, Numeracy and Technology Skill Gaps
The PIACC, a large-scale assessment evaluating proficiencies of adults, found that half of adults (ages 16-65) perform below the minimum level for literacy and “61.2% perform below the minimum standard for literacy.” Furthermore, despite “a larger proportion of our young adults (ages 16-34) than ever before graduating high school or obtaining certificates and completing some form of postsecondary education,” the results from the assessment discovered that “36 million, or nearly half of this young cohort, performs below the minimum standard for literacy, and nearly 46 million (60 percent of the cohort) performs below the minimum standard for numeracy.” Additionally, among incarcerated people, the PIAAC Survey of Incarcerated Adults found large percentages lack adequate literacy and numeracy skills. 

Included within the PIACC, the problem-solving in technology-rich environments (PS-TRE) assessment, evaluates adults’ ability to use “digital technology, communication tools, and networks to acquire and evaluate information, communicate with others and perform practical tasks.” In concert with PIACC results, the PS-TRE found that “68 percent of young adults…individuals aged 16-34, performed below the literacy level needed to obtain a score of 50 percent on PS-TRE tasks.” 

Evidence Centered Design (ECD) for Learning & Assessment
ETS recommends an ECD theory of action for postsecondary institutions to improve student literacy, numeracy and digital skills. In short, the ECD learning and assessment design promotes flexibility for instructors to teach professionally relevant skills and streamlines student evaluations measuring course-content comprehension and long-term learning outcomes. Moreover, the ECD approach sets a foundation that integrates support materials, instructional materials, and assessments within a program by requiring “a conceptual framework in which there is agreement on an operational definition of target constructs, including the knowledge and skills that should be assessed and an understanding of how the assessment data will be used.” Further, to create constructs that reflect current research, each construct is developed in collaboration with experts in the design’s specific field of study or training. Then, once there is a framework of relevant competencies, assessments can be implemented to “collect the types of evidence needed to locate individuals along a continuum or scale of key competencies.” 

Mechanisms of an ECD Approach:

  • The ECD model allows for assessment developers to create short descriptions of tasks, identifying them within student evaluation scales. Then, with statistical analysis, the tasks can be placed “along the domain scale, ranging from easiest to hardest.”  Such descriptions make it possible for developers and instructors to understand the underlying skills and knowledge required for task completion from students at each level of difficulty. 
  • In-course student evaluation mechanisms give instructors information about which students are struggling, prompting student engagement and intervention.
  • Summative assessments based on the ECD conceptual framework evaluate “the level of skill that learners demonstrate when they begin and the amount of learning that has taken place,” providing insight on program learning and long-term employment outcomes. 
  • Through an innovative technology-based platform, flexible content delivery allows for synchronous, asynchronous, and blended instruction options.
  • Synchronous learning allows instructors to interact directly with students, elaborating on important course-content and encouraging class discussion. 
  • Asynchronous learning allows for students to access course-content “on-demand,” increasing scheduling flexibility. 
  • In each synchronous, asynchronous, and blended learning, course-content is presented to students in “micro-lessons” that “allow for rapid absorption and rehearsal…followed by immediate feedback.” 

As the future of work rapidly evolves, larger percentages of workers will require access to postsecondary education that improves their literacy, numeracy, and digital competencies. In addition, postsecondary education needs to provide foundational skills to learners that allows them to adapt to unforeseen changes in the labor market. Policy makers and other leaders must support data-intensive educational and job-specific training programs to ensure workers are achieving relevant competencies for long-term career success. 

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