Solving the Middle Skills Gap at Harvard University

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The future of work lies in the modern middle, and higher ed will have to adapt its structures and offerings to be ready for the way work is evolving. 

How should colleges and universities think about serving and (ideally) credentialing the middle-skills gap? Do we insist on the four-year degrees we’re accustomed to, or do we build something different?

Joseph Fuller, Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about the “Middle Skills” jobs employers have a consistently difficult time filling, and higher ed’s opportunity to serve and credential this critical market.

What are Middle-skills Jobs?

Middle skills are commonly defined as a skill base, a set of competencies that can only be obtained through post-secondary education or certification but that don’t require a college degree. 

The classic examples of a middle-skills job are carpenters, pipe-fitters, electricians, welders — the kinds of careers that require a skills-based certification program. 

Middle skills include the ability to repair a heavy-duty truck engine, run an accounts payable desk, or perform a basic market analysis. These jobs don’t require four-year degrees although some employers might ask for those degrees in their job posts.

How did the pandemic affect middle-skills jobs?

COVID had a broad-based, systemic effect. It knocked back the education plans of a significant number of aspiring middle-skills workers. Many people either suspended permanently or postponed their plans to go to school, especially at community colleges, easily the biggest source of middle-skills talent in the U.S. 

In addition, the demand for some middle skills jobs — such as logistics and transportation — really picked up. Other jobs, however, including those in travel and hospitality, dried up almost completely. 

How Higher Ed Can Bridge this Middle-skills Gap

It’s only in the workplace that people really master skills. And it’s increasingly only in the workplace where the approaches and technologies you need to master to get a job are accessible to a learner.

Colleges and high schools across the country are cooperating with community colleges and employers to create work-based learning initiatives. The old railroad track model, where a student went from high school to community college to four-year college to the workforce, can’t survive in an age that values technology and flexibility. 

Oh, but what about free community college? That’s fine, but it’s not a comprehensive solution to the middle-skills problem.  We need more people in good-paying, household-sustaining-level jobs that have a future. Free community college just changes the coefficient on one variable in the equation that is increasingly out of sync with what we need as an economy and as a society. 

Four Steps Higher Ed Can Take to Solve the Middle-skills Gap

  1. Engage employers and understand how they view your graduates. 
  2. Realize that merely creating a more mature young adult is not enough. Business is about being productive, but employers say graduates are not skilled at working on diverse teams and have little in the way of time management abilities.  
  3. Start experimenting with non-traditional vendors. Work with technology companies to create a new curriculum that equips graduates to launch into the workplace.
  4. Upgrade the career and professional services office. Give the students access to market data about what jobs are actually on offer in the community they want to live in, what those jobs pay, and what they require.

The solution to the middle-skills gap?

More data, more engagement with employers, and more aggressive experimentation with a curriculum that moves into work-based learning


This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Joseph Fuller of Harvard University. To hear this episode and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.