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Report: ‘Middle education’ jobs hard to define, but important to N.H.’s future



Monitor staff
Sunday, September 03, 2017

In recent years the terms “middle education” and “middle skills” have come out nowhere to be a big part of New Hampshire’s discussion about the economy and education.

The terms are loosely defined but generally involve education beyond high school but less than a bachelor’s degree, and workplace skills that can’t be picked up easily on the job but don’t require multiple years of classroom preparation.

And while the terms can be hard to pin down, a new report from the state reinforces the fact that they are important.

“I think this publication is trying to say that there is still going to be a need for workers in the middle-skills jobs,” said Annette Nielsen, an economist with the Economic and Labor Market Information Bureau of the New Hampshire Employment Security and one of the authors of the study.

Titled “Perspectives on Middle Education Occupations in New Hampshire,” the study is part of Sector Partnerships, a statewide business-government initiative to help certain industries address their workforce needs. Examining such things as schooling levels, minimum education required in job ads, demographic shifts in the workforce and trends in employment, it emphasizes the importance of preparing workers, both older and younger, to fit into these jobs.

“For one doctor, you have three nurses and five assistants. For one engineer, you have two technicians,” Nielsen said.

The report estimates that about 25 percent of jobs in New Hampshire in 2014 had middle-education level requirements, a couple percentage points more than the country as a whole. There is no indication that this percentage will decline anytime soon.

One of the issues the report deals with is that these “middle” categories can be hard to measure. There are good data on numbers of New Hampshire residents who attend high school and graduate from high school, and who attend four-year colleges and get bachelor’s degrees or higher, but much less about those in between, who might be working on two-year associate degrees or professional certification.

Similarly, Nielsen said, job ads often give minimum education requirements – usually requiring either a high school diploma or bachelor’s degree – but seldom list specifics for anything in between, leading to the impression that a “middle education” level hardly exists.

Finding ways to fill any middle-education gap will be particularly important for New Hampshire, the report says, because of our aging workforce. New Hampshire workers in the last decade of their career are, on average, less educated than younger workers; finding ways to improve their skills to keep them in the workforce will be important, the report said.

For younger workers, especially those entering the workforce, there is uncertainty about how to approach alternatives to traditional four-year degrees.

“That is part of what this is also about – colleges are still figuring out how to promote and say exactly what is it that people need, that is more than a high school degree but may not be ... a bachelor’s degree,” Nielsen said.

“The mistake was maybe to think that everybody had to go to (four-year) college. If you end up after two years dropping out, then you really have nothing, other than debt,” she said.

Because of that disconnect between traditional degrees and what’s actually needed for many jobs, the report calls for different approaches to educational requirements – in the employment process, but in the educational system as well.

“There is room for some creative thinking to find new ways to connect persons with some college, no degree with New Hampshire’s postsecondary institutions” the reports says. “Converting prior credits obtained into partial degrees or assessing life and work experience in lieu of classroom studies could help these individuals back on a pathway to completing an Associate’s degree or a high-value certification.”

The report argues that middle-skills positions often require a combination of education and workplace skills, and emphasize the small but growing practice of apprenticeship, which it calls “a formal relationship between a worker and sponsor that consists of a combination of on-the-job training and related occupation-specific technical instruction in which the worker learns the practical and theoretical aspects of an occupation while earning wages.”

It lists 10 occupation categories that use apprenticeships, nine of which are in construction or mining. Federal data indicate about 13,900 people in New Hampshire work in fields “that usually require an apprenticeship,” half of whom had a high school diploma and one-third had “some college or an associate’s degree.”

The full report can be seen at www.nhes.nh.gov/elmi/products/documents/middle-ed-publication.pdf

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)