The Vulnerability of Mid-Skill Workers
In recent decades, one increasingly prevalent phenomenon occurring throughout the United States has been the decline in middle-skill employment opportunities, specifically in how the hollowing out of the middle-skilled labor force has resulted from increases in technical efficiency and automation in production. Formally defined, middle-skill jobs are positions that require more education and training than a high school diploma, but less than a four year bachelor’s degree, which is the education level preferential for performing skilled work. Over the past four decades, middle-skill employment declined from 38.4% to 23.3% total hours worked, while high skilled employment rose from 30.2% to 46.2% and low skilled opportunities remaining relatively flat, descending from 31.4% to 30.6%. While high skill employment has risen over the past half century, widening household wage gaps have been directly correlated with a less recognized polarization of skill levels among workers. Therefore, it is evident that the decline in jobs has been more prevalent for sectors more prone to technological integration.
Furthermore, in an analysis of the relative income share of high, middle, and low skilled labor, one interpretation for the phenomenon may associate it with the technical skills of middle-skill laborers and their subjectivity to being replaced by 21st-century technology. Subsequently, high skilled jobs, such as stock brokers and electrical engineers, and low skilled job opportunities, such as retail clerks and dishwashers, have been statistically more abundant than middle skilled positions. This is largely due to the rising demand for high skilled labor to fulfill roles that require specialization, such as electricians and computer engineers, as well as the constant need for cheap, low-skilled workers to fulfill jobs that might require face-to-face interaction, such as sales representatives and restaurant workers. On the contrary, the US has seen sharp declines in available middle-skill job opportunities. Examples of such jobs include office administration and machine operator jobs. In addition, studies, on a global level, have found that white and blue-collar occupations that embody high initial exposure to routinization suffer from greater decreases in labor income shares. This phenomenon has also been true for the US. However, sectors with low initial exposure to routine tasks, such as restaurant and hospitality positions have been more stable. These jobs require human interaction, thereby causing such positions to be less susceptible to automation.
According to Irving Wladawsky-Berger of the Wall Street Journal, middle-skill, highly routinized jobs are increasingly being replaced by more efficient methods and automation as a result of this trend. Berger contends that wage polarities are occurring in three broad occupation groups: the high-skilled, the mid-skilled, and the low-skilled. In regards to the high skilled, employment opportunities have significantly expanded and the earnings of college-educated workers have subsequently experienced steady rates of growth. Likewise, low skilled, low wage jobs have also been experiencing rising employment levels, though wages have been stagnant and, in some cases, declining. Among the labor force, mid-skill laborers have been the most unfortunate. Over the past four decades, job openings have sharply declines and wages have suffered significant hits.
Studies have analyzed the specific geographical influences imposed on the economic antagonisms witnessed in antithetically recognized topographies. Such analyses exerted particular focus on population densities and the economic characteristics of rural, suburban, midsize metropolitan, and large city areas. Specifically, these studies show how, historically, knowledge-intensive companies and industries, such as Google and Apple, have the tendency to be headquartered in city/metropolitan regions. Preceding beliefs on the ensuing role of technology in commercial sales during the dot-com bubble included the view of some management experts in how the subsequent decline of cities would follow the phenomenon due to its capacity for allowing people to shop from home and obtain access to more streamlined communication methods and social media. This proved to be largely inaccurate. On the contrary, cities have flourished from the integration of technology. Specifically, cities have been able to generate greater degrees of human capital, innovation, and job opportunities. As a result, it is the metropolitan and city areas of the US that are the most skill-demanding regions of the US and best places to find high-skill job opportunities, as they are home to the most streamlined and extensive communication systems, transportation methods, and infrastructural developments. However, although this has, overall, produced more job opportunities, it has increasingly led to the displacement of the mid-skill labor force within these areas.
In the decade following WWII, cities were home to many mid-skill blue and white collar jobs, including production and administrative positions. Since mid-skill laborers coerced with high skilled executives and professionals in workforces, mid-skill positions for non-college educated people were plentiful in metropolitan areas and cities but almost nonexistent for people in suburban and rural areas. It was, essentially, this phenomenon that allowed for more blue and white collar workers to achieve a middle-class lifestyle. However, although this had been beneficial for middle-skill workers, the 1970s witnessed a sharp decline in blue collar production jobs. In addition to this, white-collar office jobs and administrative positions significantly dropped due to the increase in technological integration within the workplace. Due to the offset and displacement of mid-skill labor opportunities by virtue of the increases in high-skilled labor and technological integration within workplaces, mid-skilled workers are increasingly forced to resort to jobs that require substantially less skill compared to the jobs they formerly held for subsistence.
Statistically, cities do offer better employment opportunities. However, the hollowing out of the mid-skill labor market has caused many non-college workers to leave cities due to the lack of such jobs – once abundant in densely populated urban areas. Therefore, it might be time for mid-skill workers to search for work in nearby towns rather than in NYC specifically. As the mid-skill labor force continues to become increasingly susceptible to technological integration in workplaces, it might be time for students to reconsider their decision to pursue associates degrees, which commonly lead to mid-skill employment, as opposed to bachelor’s degrees, which offers a path to high-skill employment. Although the financial and opportunity cost of pursuing a four-year degree may seem financially and academically daunting, associate degrees are insufficient for high income jobs amidst the current labor market predicament. Therefore, in order for present-day college students to be self-sufficient and achieve job security in today’s ever-changing technological era, a greater investment in personal human capital is necessary.
Bowles, Samuel, Richard Edwards, and Frank Roosevelt. 2017. Understanding Capitalism. Oxford University Press.
Kopf, Dan. 2019. "Low-Skill Workers Aren't Actually The Ones Most Threatened By Robots". Quartz. https://qz.com/1010831/the-middle-skill-job-is-disappearing-in-rich-countries/.
Wladawsky-Berger, Irving. 2019. "The Evolution Of Work In Urban Labor Markets". WSJ. https://blogs.wsj.com/cio/2019/06/14/the-evolution-of-work-in-urban-labor-markets/?guid=BL-CIOB-14818&dsk=y.