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

Published: Monday, Aug. 3 2015 5:35 p.m. MDT

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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.

"Ideally, you should be learning in school the same thing you are doing in your job," Carnevale said. "It makes better sense than working at McDonald's and studying engineering."

Five ways

Carnevale's report outlines five pathways to middle jobs: employer-based training; industry-based certifications; apprenticeships; post-secondary certificates and associate's degrees. Besides providing bridges to four-year degrees, many provide good lifelong careers.

"You can get a certificate in HVAC, and make more money than 20 to 25 percent of people with bachelors' degrees," Carnevale said. "With a two-year associate of arts degree in the right field, you can make more than 30 percent of people with bachelor's degrees. But, what you make depends on what you take."

However, students don't get enough good information about the employment prospects and salaries for careers they might consider, Carnevale said, and they need it before they embark on post-high school training.

"Everybody ought to take short course in which they learn about careers, the education needed to pursue them, and how to finance that," he said.

"Do what interests you, but you'd better find a way to make it pay. People pay a lot of money to learn some things, then they end up doing something else — and the something else is likely not to pay well."

Information is available, though. To help with career planning, the U.S. Department of Labor sponsors a website called MyNextMove.org that is useful for exploring the landscape of middle jobs, and others.

At the site, learners can match their interests with possible careers, and learn what the employment prospects and salaries are for various job fields. Jobs that can be entered through paid apprentice programs are highlighted, and apprentice programs can be searched by state.

Next steps

One proposal from the "Five Ways" report is that the U.S. government should invest more in career technical education programs in high school. High school and post-secondary curriculum need to link up smoothly, it said, making high school work more relevant for students.

Offering more dual enrollment programs that allow students to start career training while still in high school is part of that drive. Ramping up work-study opportunities that allow students to earn while they learn is also recommended.

A final proposal from the report is the creation of a system to track transcript information, then link it with employer wage records. By collating such data, post-secondary training programs could be evaluated to show which are most effective at moving students into well-paying careers.

"With scarce money, we must be more efficient," Carnevale said. "The hope is that if students got this information, they would make better decisions. There would be fewer defaults on student loans."

Linking transcripts with wages is an idea that struck a chord with Daniela Fairchild, a policy analyst for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based education policy think tank.

"By tracking job placements and wage earnings, we can begin to rate CTE programs, shutter those that are ineffective, and scale up those that are successful," Fairchild wrote in her blog. "If CTE is ever to gain traction in the U.S. — and shed the stigma of being low-level voc-tech education for kids who can't quite make it academically — this will be a necessary first step."

The big push for U.S. high schools to prepare all students for college doesn't reflect the reality of the job market, Fairchild said, citing a 2011 Harvard study that predicted that by 2018, only 30 percent of U.S. jobs will require a bachelor's degree or higher.

"We've really been pushing toward four-year college programs," she said. "We will end up with a lot of kids who get lost in that single-minded, one-track push. Or, we'll end up with a lot of kids who graduated from college with a lot of debt — and maybe they didn't need all that."

Fairchild believes the Common Core state standards so far adopted by 45 U.S. states will burnish the reputation of CTE classes taught in high school.

"The Common Core will require academic standards of high caliber across the board, including career training education," she said. "We'll have to make sure it's well implemented to make sure we don't lose a lot of kids, but this is something that will improve interest and respect for CTE."

Email: cbaker@desnews.com

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company