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  • Several blue collar positions rose briskly, including carpenters (by 20 percent), heavy vehicle maintenance specialists (25 percent), and heating and air conditioning positions (21 percent).

These patterns illustrate the diverse occupational patterns of job growth. Only a small part of gains in middle skill occupations—even in construction—reflect short-term factors such as the recent housing “bubble” and “bust.”

When wages as well as employment grow faster than average for a given skill group, the implication is that labor market demand is rising more rapidly for workers in that skill category than for other workers. For workers in middle-skill jobs, recent wage patterns paint a complex picture.

The weekly earnings gap between workers with college degrees versus workers with high school diplomas has certainly widened for over 30 years, although it did not increase at all between 2000 and 2006 for full-time workers above age 24. Those with associate degrees now earn, per year of education, a similar wage premium over those with only a high school diploma. In 2006, the median worker with an associate degree earned about 33 percent more than those with only a high school degree, while those with a BA degree and no graduate degree earned 62 percent more.

Turning to occupational differences, several middle-skill occupations have experienced rapid wage increases in recent years. In the eight years between 1997 and 2005, the average American worker had an overall inflation-adjusted wage increase of only about 5 percent. But real increases averaged:

  • 10-14 percent for speech and respiratory therapists;

  • 23 percent for radiologic technicians;

  • 18 percent for electricians; and

  • 14 percent for electronic technicians.

Certainly, not all positions in middle-skill occupations pay well or are well-situated on career paths that promise wage advancement and not all middle-skill positions experienced healthy increases in real wages after the late 1990s. In some categories not requiring postsecondary education or training, wage increases lagged behind the average. But the figures indicate that demand for many middle-skill occupations is rising fast enough to generate not only strong employment growth, but also rapid growth in wages.

Are Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projections over the next decade or so consistent with these recent trends? BLS projects occupational trends as well as educational requirements for the U.S. work force. The projections have their limitations; they mostly reflect anticipated shifts in product demand across industries. One limitation is that the projected occupational demands are unlikely to capture fully the within-industry and within-occupation shifts of work organization and skill requirements.

Still, they are useful as lower bounds to expected growth in demand for skills. BLS projects total (gross) hiring demands in occupations, including replacement demand for retirees, as well as expected net employment changes across categories. Arguably, gross job openings reflect the occupational opportunities available to new cohorts of workers. Using its estimates of educational requirements for jobs, BLS projects that nearly half (about 45 percent) of all job openings in the next 10 years will be in the broad occupational categories that are mostly middle-skill (Figure 2). Another 33 percent will be in the high-skill occupational categories, with the remaining 22 percent in the low-skill (service) occupations.


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