Disappearing jobs in the middle

The recession has restored jobs at either end of the skill set, but not those in the center.

By Ben Steverman

Jun 6, 2014 @ 10:58 am EST


Whether it's the back seat of a subcompact car or the U.S. labor market, the middle can be an uncomfortable spot.

Highly educated Americans have been enjoying the recovery for quite a while. And low-skilled Americans may finally be recovering some of their lost ground, Bloomberg News reports. The jobless rate for workers with a high school education or less is down about one percentage point since December, for example.

Left out are so-called “middle skill” workers, according to a new analysis from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The worse-than-mediocre prospects for these average workers repeats a four-decade trend. Recessions destroy a disproportionate number of middle-income jobs, like those held by secretaries and machine operators, that can be easily outsourced or automated. When the economy recovers, there's demand for jobs at the top, like doctors and tech workers, and at the bottom, like restaurant workers and home health aides. But most of the jobs in the middle are gone forever.

During the Great Recession, from 2007 to 2010, the number of high-skill jobs grew by 1%; the number of middle-skill jobs fell by 9.3% and the number of low-skill jobs fell by 2.6%. Since the recovery began, 2010 to 2013, the number of high-skill jobs has grown by 7.8%, the number of middle-skill jobs has grown by 1.9% and the number of low-skill jobs has grown by 6%.

What job categories are growing? Those that require one-on-one personal contact. It's tough to outsource building maintenance staff or yoga instructors. Some get OK wages, like teachers and police officers. But many of the fastest-growing job categories barely get above minimum wage. More and more manicurists, retail clerks and wait-staff are needed to serve the high-income groups willing and able to shell out for more makeovers, shopping sprees and meals out.

In theory, better educational opportunities could help more Americans vault into high-skill jobs. But that's quite a leap to make. Increasingly, the U.S. job market is looking like a ladder with a bunch of rungs missing.


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