A Funder Zeroes In On One Promising Solution to Inequality: Middle-Skilled Jobs

In between the traditionally accepted paradigm of blue collar and white collar jobs lies a category of employment known as middle-skills jobs. These are professions that require more education or training than a high school diploma, but less than a four-year bachelor's degree. Middle-skills jobs account for more than half of the U.S. labor market, and middle-skills jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) come with an average salary of $53,000.

Yet for some reason, companies are having a tough time finding candidates to fill the positions. This not only threatens economic growth, but is a huge missed opportunity at a time when so many American workers languish in dead-end, low-wage jobs and everyone is wondering how to reduce inequality. 

With its new STEM Middle-Skill Initiative, the Siemens Foundation has committed millions of dollars to studying why the U.S. isn't producing enough workers to fill the demand, and what can be done to change that. Examples of middle-skills jobs include surgical technologists, respiratory therapists and precision machinists, all of which require technical skills that aren't necessarily taught in traditional bachelor's programs. Siemens has already devoted $5 million in the initial two-year grant period, a spending pace the foundation intends to keep up for at least the next five to 10 years.

The program has a two-pronged strategy: First, scale proven models of middle-skills development across the country; and second, get the word out to young adults aged 16 to 29 years old to let them know these opportunities even exist. This latter piece of the picture is crucial: Kids hear all the time that they need to get a pricey four-year degree for a shot at a middle-class life. What they don't hear as much is that there are other career paths to financial security, ones that may be more affordable and less crowded with competition. 

To address the first goal, the Siemens Foundation has partnered with the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices to distribute $100,000 grants to six states that had promising pilot programs in the areas of IT, energy, healthcare and manufacturing. Indiana, Iowa, Montana, New Hampshire, Utah, and Washington will receive money in addition to technical assistance and mentorship. Success will be gauged using practical measures such as the number of people graduating from the programs, the time it takes them to find jobs, and the amount they earn on average.

The second goal requires educating the public and bridging a cultural gap. Middle-skills jobs are highly coveted in Germany (home of multinational engineering and electronics conglomerate Siemens AG), but American workers don't seem to understand the concept, according to David Etzwiler, CEO of the Siemens Foundation. "Part of that, we think, gets at kind of a belief that this is my grandmother or grandfather's factory job, that it's loud and dirty and doesn't necessarily pay that well. If that was ever true, it certainly isn't true now," he tells Inside Philanthropy.

Etzwiler is excited about tackling what he sees as a macro issue in our society: inequality. "This is an opportunity to really talk about what is at the core of this country," he says, "which is providing opportunity to folks who want to work hard and develop a career, and provide for themselves and their families and their communities. One of the cool parts about being in philanthropy these days is that most of us are really thinking about how our work ties to that broader vision."

An estimated 71 percent of college grads with bachelor's degrees are saddled with student loan debt, to the tune of a suffocating $1.3 trillion. Instead of wondering whether a college education is worth it, maybe we should be asking if there's an alternative path to careers that offer competitive salaries and potential for growth. According to Etzwiler, the education needed to qualify for middle-skills jobs comes with little or no debt. A well-trained workforce that's not bogged down with monthly student loan payments? That sounds like a good thing for America's economy, and for the rising generation of millennial workers.