Data Spotlight: America’s Best ‘Middle-Skill’ Jobs

Published on Jun 30, 2008

Updated on Nov 3, 2022

Written by Emsi Burning Glass

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The conventional wisdom is dished out to millions of students every year: You “need” a four-year degree in order to get a good job. However, with employers begging for more skilled (but not necessarily university-educated) workers, and with many bachelor’s grads finding themselves with few job prospects and a mountain of student loans, workforce and education professionals have begun to take issue with the common wisdom. Instead, they’re focusing on badly-needed “middle-skill” jobs—that is, jobs requiring some postsecondary education or training, but not a 4-year degree. An excellent overview of the issues can be found in the report “America’s Forgotten Middle-Skill Jobs,” produced by Skills2Compete and the Urban Institute.

So what are the most plentiful and well-paid “middle-skill” jobs? Using EMSI’s Strategic Advantage, we were able to get the answer in minutes. Starting with occupations having an average education level no higher than an associate’s degree, we filtered out those having hourly earnings lower than $25 and ranked the remaining occupations by estimated job openings (new plus replacement jobs) over the next five years.

Occupation2007 – 2012 Est. Job OpeningsMedian Hourly EarningsAverage Education LevelRegistered nurses546,000$28Associate’sFirst-line supervisors/managers of construction trades and extraction workers99,000$26Experience in fieldFirst-line supervisors/managers of mechanics, installers, and repairers81,000$26Experience in fieldSales representatives, wholesale and manufacturing, technical and scientific products77,000$31Moderate-term on-the-job trainingManagers, all other55,000$40Experience in fieldCost estimators52,000$25Experience in fieldDental hygienists46,000$30Associate’sComputer specialists, all other45,000$33Associate’sFirst-line supervisors/managers of non-retail sales workers35,000$32Experience in fieldIndustrial production managers33,000$37Experience in field

These numbers offer some valuable insights into America’s best middle-skill job market:

  1. Recent high school grads, beware: These jobs may not require a four-year college education, but the majority (6 of 10) require significant experience, so be prepared to start at the bottom and work your way up.

  2. It pays to be a first-line manager or supervisor, especially in construction, mining, technical and mechanical fields, sales, and manufacturing—all fields where work experience generally counts more than college.

  3. It’s already common knowledge that middle-skill health care workers are in high demand, but the numbers are still stunning: US employers will hire more than half a million nurses in the next five years. There’s also strong demand for dental hygienists, who can earn even more than nurses.

  4. People in a sales career, or considering one, should get some scientific or technical background—the demand and wages are both higher than in other sales fields.

  5. If you have experience in construction or manufacturing and are good with numbers, you could advance your career with training in cost estimation—the art of calculating the actual or predicted cost of a big project. Why construction and manufacturing? Those industries employ the vast majority—about 87%—of cost estimators.

  6. If you’re into computers but not software development, a two-year stint at the local community college can qualify you for a high-paying job (although a four-year degree and/or experience won’t hurt). The above category of “computer specialists, all other” includes network designers, software testers, web developers, web administrators, and computer systems architects.

We’ve seen that most of the top middle-skill jobs require experience in the field. But what about jobs for recent high school graduates who don’t have years of experience? Using our criterion of $25/hour or higher earnings, they are harder to find. But if we lower the cutoff to $20/hour (equivalent to almost $42,000/year), more possibilities open up:

Occupation2007 – 2012 Est. Job OpeningsMedian Hourly EarningsAverage Education LevelSales representatives, wholesale and manufacturing, except technical and scientific products268,000$24Moderate-term on-the-job trainingPolice and sheriff’s patrol officers148,000$23Long-term on-the-job trainingSales representatives, services, all other142,000$23Moderate-term on-the-job trainingElectricians136,000$21Long-term on-the-job trainingPlumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters96,000$21Long-term on-the-job trainingPostal service mail carriers58,000$21Short-term on-the-job trainingClaims adjusters, examiners, and investigators52,000$24Long-term on-the-job trainingParalegals and legal assistants47,000$21Associate’sRadiologic technologists and technicians33,000$23Associate’sAdvertising sales agents32,000$21Moderate-term on-the-job training

Still, high school grads should not expect to just walk into these jobs, especially at the given earnings levels. All except mail carriers require a two-year degree or significant on-the-job training. Some (especially electricians and plumbers) may use apprenticeships combined with classroom work, and increasingly, community colleges are offering degrees or certificates for jobs that once only required on-the-job training. Certificates from industry groups can also be highly desirable. For more information about education and training trends for specific jobs, you can consult the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook.

After crunching the numbers for middle-skill jobs, it is clear that high-paying, middle-skill jobs are plentiful in a diverse array of fields. However, nearly all require some kind of training and/or education beyond high school. This means that for the majority of today’s youth, the two years immediately after high school will be crucial for making transitions into college, career/tech training, and workplace training such as apprenticeships and internships.