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Five ways to a middle-class salary without a 4-year degree

Published: Saturday, Oct. 27 2012 8:57 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — In the Broadway musical "Ragtime," the actor portraying Henry Ford sings the virtues of his most famous creation — the assembly line.

"Even people who ain't too clever can learn to tighten a nut forever. Attach one pedal, or pull one lever — for Henry Ford."

Through most of the 20th century, willing workers could land jobs that yielded middle-class security with no more training than a high school diploma, and often without one. In the 21st century, though, post-high school training is needed for most middle-class jobs, whether you're clever or not.

Many of those jobs don't require a four-year college degree, though. A new report from the Georgetown University Public Policy Institute calls them "middle jobs."

The report punctures the widespread belief that a four-year college degree is essential to earning a middle-class income. "Five Ways that Pay on the Way to the B.A." highlights a handful of pathways to middle jobs — those that require more training than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor's degree, and pay a middle-class income of $35,000 per year or more.

Mighty middle

One in every five U.S. jobs — and nearly half of all jobs that pay at least middle-class wages — are middle jobs. More than 11 million of those middle jobs pay $50,000 or more annually. Another four million middle jobs pay $75,000 or more, the report said.

The nation's 29 million middle jobs look even better when compared with the jobs high school graduates without additional training can get. In the past decade, recent high school graduates' wages fell by 12 percent to just $19,400 annually in 2011. That's below the poverty line for a family of four.

For recent graduates with no other training, it gets worse. One in four young high school graduates was unemployed in the past year, and more than half were underemployed.

Computer revolution

"Manufacturing is still the biggest industry in America, but it requires fewer than half the workers it used to," said report co-author Anthony Carnevale, who is director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Since the early 1980s, computerization has reframed the workplace, eliminating repetitive jobs and creating a need for workers with a variety of skills and problem-solving abilities, Carnevale said.

The changed job market increases the need for post-secondary education. In 1970, 75 percent of middle-class workers held only a high school diploma, or less. By 2007, just 40 percent of middle-class workers held a high school diploma or less.

"People used to get trained on the job," Carnevale said. "You could start on the loading dock, and end up as the CEO. Now you have to have higher skills on the first day. High school used to be enough, but it isn't anymore."

Moving up

Obtaining the right technical education to land a middle job can be a gateway to life in the U.S. middle class, the report said. And, a middle job can be a springboard toward a four-year college degree. Having that bachelor's degree will make a $1 million difference over a lifetime compared to wages of someone with a high school diploma alone, the report said.

To implement a middle job's springboard effect, a student might earn a registered nurse certificate at a two-year community college, then work in a hospital while earning a bachelor's degree in nursing.

Or, he or she might earn a Microsoft certificate in information technology, then work with computers while earning a bachelor's degree in computer science. Another student might serve an apprenticeship as a carpenter, then work in the building trade while completing a degree in construction management.

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