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Changes In The Economy Leave Workers Scrambling

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If you're unemployed, it can be painfully clear when you don't have the right skills to land a good job.

With unemployment at 8.6 percent, upwards of 13 million Americans are without a job and looking for work. A recent NPR/Kaiser Family Foundation poll surveyed hundreds of long-term unemployed and underemployed people, asking whether they thought they had the skills required to find a job.

Nearly 40 percent said they did not have the education and training needed to be competitive in the current job market. And as many middle-skill jobs become automated, those looking for a new opportunity increasingly find that their option is taking a lower-skill (and lower-paying) job, or retraining for a more high-level one.

Nearly 70 percent of the long-term unemployed and underemployed would like the government to offer more job training services, the poll found.

The Choice To Enter A Training Program

Massachusetts Labor Secretary Joanne Goldstein recently visited a job training program set up by a high-tech manufacturing company. She asked participants about their experiences.

Paul John Baptiste, a former Army tank driver, said he used to repair glass-walled shelters at bus stops, "but unfortunately, I got laid off."

After that, he worked for a bit as one of those guys who come in a pickup truck to jump-start your car, better known as roadside assistance. But he says he was on the overnight shift, and he started thinking that working in the rain on the side of the highway for not much pay was probably not the best career path.

That was especially true one particular night, when the lug nuts on a Porsche were so tight he just couldn't get the flat tire off.

"I was banging at least 15 to 20 minutes with a hammer ... standing on the pry bar, [jumping and] everything. But it took an hour in the rain just to get a tire off," he said.

So Baptiste is now trying to make a leap to a different part of the labor market. He's been taking classes to learn how to do high-end computer-controlled machining. That would mean working in a high-tech factory making parts for jet airplanes, instead of basically just banging on stuff with a hammer.

Middle-Level Jobs Squeezed Out

Interestingly, economists say right now there are jobs in both those very low- and high-skilled categories. The middle-skill-level jobs are the hardest to find.

"Clerical, administrative support, sales occupations, pushing paper, filing, sorting, calculating, retrieving — many, many of those things are now increasingly automated," said David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He says for 20 years, midlevel jobs have been outsourced and automated.

Look at a store like Home Depot, for example: You used to have a dozen cashiers. Now, you have two or three cashiers and a bunch of self-checkout machines.

So since the recession hit, that's made such jobs even harder to come by, pushing many people into lower-skilled work like fixing flat tires or delivering pizza.

"We see an increasing phenomenon of basically adults working in what ... were thought of as teenage jobs," Autor said. "When things hollow out in the middle, people naturally move down towards where opportunities still exist, and that's in these jobs. They're not the jobs they'd prefer to do but [it's] better than [unemployment]."

That includes jobs like mowing grass or in fast food, Autor said. The good news, he adds, is that there will be plenty of these lower-skilled jobs around; you can't outsource janitorial work. But the bad news is that the pay is very low.

So now more than ever, Autor says, to get a job that pays well you need specialized training or education to get into the upper-tier skill level where the jobs are more likely to be.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit


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