ATD Blog

Middle-Skills Jobs Critical to the Future of Work

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

“Everyone who has a smartphone should be able to have a smart career,” keynote speaker Zoe Baird said to a packed room at The Forum 2017, presented by the National Association of Workforce Boards. We are seeing the greatest shift in work in the United States in 100 years, Baird argued, and automation is affecting the world of work more than globalization.  
Baird, the CEO and president of the Markle Foundation, spoke about the new digital economy and how workforce development boards—which direct federal, state, and local funding to workforce development, businesses, governments, nonprofits, and educational institutions—can work together to give individuals the skills to participate in this new world of work. 

Likening the current digital shift to the Industrial Revolution, Baird explained that—just as new institutions such as high schools were created to fill skills gaps in that era—new institutions need to be created now. Workers are feeling a great sense of anxiety due to the threat of robots taking jobs and the uncertainty about work will look like in the coming years. 

This evolving workplace has included a greater need for middle-skills jobs, said Baird. A recent Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce survey found that since 1989, there are 7.3 million fewer jobs for workers with high school diplomas or less. These individuals are in need of skills-based training. 
This new world of work will require continued upskilling: 87 percent of those polled in a recent Markle Foundation-Pew survey said that continued training was important for employees today. But Baird also pointed out that many workers have transferable skills that, along with the addition of a few new ones, could be used when moving into a new role. 

In conjunction with LinkedIn and the state of Colorado, the Markle Foundation has founded Skillful, an initiative to help job seekers understand the choices that are available for employers to find the skilled talent they need, and for educators to train people in the skills that will be required in the coming years. 


The Colorado initiative, while implementing elements of job training and skills matching that can be seen across the United States, aims to bring best practices together. In nine months, 48 percent of job seekers have either enrolled in training or gotten jobs. Baird pointed to the unique nature of Colorado, where jobs, particularly middle-skills jobs, remain unfilled for longer than the nation’s average. Part of the challenge, she said, is that so many jobs require a college degree even though the job itself doesn’t necessarily need it. We have to get away from thinking that a four-year degree is the only path to success, Baird said. 


Skillful brings together some 90 Colorado businesses—20 of which are actively involved--to come up with a list of skills that are needed today and work with educational institutions to see that training for those skills is available. 

Baird encouraged conference attendees—those involved in workforce programs—to do their part to upskill the present and future workforce, specifically to: 
• Make job training and new skills development a priority under the new presidential administration.
• Educate themselves about available jobs in the new market.
• Use technology required of the new workforce when working with job seekers, such as encouraging them to use a computer when looking for jobs or during training. 

Read more about the skills gap in ATD's whitepaper Bridging the Skills Gap: Workforce Development is Everyone's Business.

About the Author

Patty Gaul is a senior writer/editor for the Association for Talent Development (ATD).

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