Middle-skill jobs are gaining notoriety as an appreciation for practical skills gains steam. Learn why technical and vocational programs are becoming popular choices for career training.

Why Middle-Skill Careers Are Hot Right Now

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In Houston, home of one of the fastest-growing job markets in the nation, there are presently thousands of openings for middle-skill jobs. In Massachusetts, where economic growth has been slower, employers project needing approximately 400,000 new middle-skill workers in the next two years. In Michigan, despite its higher-than-average unemployment rate, many employers have trouble filling jobs that require technical and trade skills. And in Colorado, 47 percent of new jobs through 2022 will be middle-skill positions.

These state snapshots reflect a national trend: Middle-skill jobs -- that is, jobs that require a two-year degree, vocational training or certification -- are on the rise, according to analysis from USA Today. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), nearly half of the fastest-growing occupations in the U.S. are middle-skill professions, such as diagnostic medical sonographers, occupational therapy assistants and skincare specialists.

The middle-skill gap

Middle-skill jobs require less education than a four-year degree. So why is the demand for middle-skill workers so high?

According to USA Today, the shortage of middle-skilled workers can be traced to the push for young people to enter four-year colleges. Furthermore, many high schools have eliminated their vocational and technical training over the past 30 years, so fewer students are getting introduced to middle-skill occupations at a young age. The resulting deficit has become known as the "middle-skill gap," which is changing the national landscape of employment opportunities.

States step up

In the face of higher demand for skilled workers, many states have adopted programs that support people seeking to acquire trade or technical skills.

Alice Houlihan of Grand Rapids, Michigan was working as a director in the financial sector when she lost her job. Taking advantage of Michigan's Workforce Investment Act (WIA), which pays for career training, she enrolled in a dog grooming certification program and pursued her passion: working with animals. Upon obtaining her certificate, Houlihan was able to open her own business, Zen Dog Grooming and Canine Massage.

"It's fulfilling running my own business, and I'm grateful to have had financial support from the state," says Houlihan.

Many other states have stepped up to support students pursuing trade and technical training. In 2014, Alabama, Colorado and Iowa each allocated funding for career pathways, which provide the education and training workers require to earn postsecondary credentials and obtain middle-skill jobs. (The National Skills Coalition maintains a list of state policies that support career pathways at nationalskillscoalition.org.)

More students are choosing middle skills

No one exploring a college education has failed to notice the sizable price tag associated with tuition, especially at four-year colleges and universities. According to the College Board, the median published tuition and fee price at private and public four-year colleges in 2014 was $11,550 -- that's $46,200 for a four-year education. In addition to racking up student debt -- an average of $33,000 for the class of 2014 -- many students are not finding jobs in their fields. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, in 2013, 44 percent of college graduates were underemployed, meaning that they had a job that did not require the degree they held.

Faced with the mounting costs of four-year colleges, many students are turning toward shorter degree and vocational programs that provide them with in-demand middle skills.

Amber Mosca of Brattleboro, Vermont is currently pursuing an associate degree in psychology with a concentration in substance abuse at the Community College of Vermont. As a mother of a three-year-old and with one more child on the way, Mosca needed an affordable program with good job prospects.

"There are a lot of jobs available in the mental health and addiction field," says Mosca. "I hope to start out with a job in an addiction treatment center or inpatient dual diagnosis program."

According to BLS projections, Mosca's job prospects might be excellent. From 2012 to 2022, the BLS projects job growth for social and human service assistants at 22 percent, much faster than the average. Jobs for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors are expected to grow a whopping 31 percent from 2012 to 2022. For some of these positions, a four-year degree isn't required.

Given the costs of tuition and the labor market, many students are choosing trade or technical training through associate degrees, certifications and vocational programs.

But what about the earnings potential?

Middle-skill salaries

Common wisdom holds that a four-year college degree is worth the investment. The actual numbers, however, should be closely examined.

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) cites research showing that some workers with two-year degrees in science, technology, engineering and math have greater average lifetime earnings than college graduates in most other career areas. Aircraft mechanics have lifetime earnings of $2.3 million and electricians have lifetime earnings of $2.1 million. These technical occupations exceed the lifetime earnings of writers and editors ($2.0 million) and teachers ($1.8 million).

Many middle-skill jobs offer surprisingly high salaries. According to the BLS, dental hygienists earned a national mean annual wage of $71,530 in 2013. In Washington, California and the District of Columbia, the mean annual wage for dental hygienists surpassed $90,000.

Other high-paying, fast-growing middle-skill professions include diagnostic medical sonographers ($67,170 mean annual wage), paralegals ($51,170 mean annual wage) and physical therapy assistants ($53,320 mean annual wage).

A trend toward the trades

Community colleges and vocational schools have, historically, been considered inferior to four-year colleges and universities. That perception, however, is shifting.

Jan Coplan is the internship coordinator for the Windham Higher Education Cooperative in Vermont and works with Windham County students entering the workforce.

"I've noticed that the stigma around community college is starting to change," Coplan says. "I tell my community college students that they're savvy: Many of them are not going into debt, and they're choosing professions like nursing that guarantee them jobs in the future."

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Vocational & Technical Schools by State

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