Are Digital Skills Useful in the Middle-Skill Job Market?

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It’s mid-March of 2015 and unemployment in the US is at it’s lowest point (5.5%) since May of 2008. But you don’t have a job. You also don’t have a college degree. Is there a decent job with a future for you in the United States as it recovers from the Great Recession?

ed attain graphThe proportion of Americans with a college degree has steadily increased for 75 years and you might be feeling like a member of a minority if you haven’t graduated from college. You’re not. According to the US Census Bureau  56.4% of Americans aged 25 and over have a high school diploma and do not have a college degree. Employment opportunities for this large group of people have traditionally been referred to as the middle-skill job market.

Burning Glass Technologies recently released a report that examined the skills that are in demand in what they called the middle-skill job market. Burning Glass is a company that analyzes the labor market based on data they compile on a daily basis from close to 40,000 internet sites that advertise employment opportunities. Their report is based on the data they acquired from December 2013 to November 2014. There are important issues to consider about the way they analyzed their data which we’ll return to later in the article.  But first, what did they find?

MultiDevice_excel_350pxThe take-home message from the Burning Glass report is simple and straightforward. Basic digital skills are in demand. What are basic digital skills? The ability to work with productivity software such as Microsoft’s Word and Excel.

What are the advantages of having basic digital skills in the middle-skill job market? There are at least four according to the Burning Glass report.

First, there are more job possibilities open to you if you have these skills. Burning Glass estimated that 78% of job postings in the middle-skill market demanded at least basic digital skills.

comp workersSecond, the demand for these jobs is growing faster than the demand for middle-skill jobs that don’t demand basic digital skills.  From 2003 to 2013 digital middle-skill jobs experienced a 4.7% growth rate while non-digital skill jobs only grew at a rate of 1.9%. In other words, from 2003 to 2013 there were slightly less than 2.5 digital middle-skill jobs added to the workforce for every additional non-digital middle-skill job. As the US economy has recovered from 2010 to 2013, digital middle-skill jobs have grown at roughly the same rate (4.8% job growth) as high-skilled jobs that demand at least a college degree (4.7% growth).

Third, digital middle-skill jobs pay more. Burning Glass reported that non-digital skill jobs paid an average $20.14 per hour while basic digital-skill jobs paid an average $22.66 per hour, an increase of approximately 12.5%.

career advancementFourth, digital skills jobs provide more opportunity for advancement after you have a job. Skill with basic digital productivity software like Word and Excel is a gateway to entry into the workforce where more sophisticated digital skills can be learned. For example, companies will often train their personnel to work with customer relationship management software such as SAP CRM, graphics and design software such as Photoshop, or analysis applications such as Google Analytics. These more advanced skills can then be used to move up into more attractive jobs. Few companies are willing to train people to use Word or Excel; you need these basic skills to get in the door.

The clear message is that basic digital skills provide a gateway to landing a decent job that has the opportunity for future advancement. However, if you do not have a college degree, the situation may not be as straightforward as the Burning Glass report makes it appear.

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Burning Glass

Earlier it was noted that there are important issues to consider related to how Burning Glass made use of their data in compiling their report. The Burning Glass report is focused on a set of jobs that have traditionally been defined as middle-skill jobs where “middle skill jobs” was understood as referring to jobs that required a high school diploma but not a college degree. In a different report Burning Glass pointed out that the degree requirements for many of these jobs have increased in recent years. One example they cite is that 65% of the Executive Secretary or Executive Assistant jobs that are posted require a college degree while only 19% of the people who currently hold these jobs actually have a college degree. This shift in requirements combined with their focus on the jobs themselves led Burning Glass to redefine the middle-skill job market in their report.

Burning Glass defined the middle skill job market as the set of jobs that pay a median of $15 per hour for which more than 20% of the job postings do not demand a college degree. This change in definition makes sense if you are fundamentally interested in the jobs themselves. However, if you have a high school diploma without a college degree and you are fundamentally interested in finding a job, then the revised definition of the middle-skill job market used by Burning Glass devalues their report insofar as it applies to you in your search for a job.

15 hourThere are two consequences of the Burning Glass definition of the middle-skill market that job seekers should be aware of.  First, limiting consideration to jobs with a median wage of $15 per hour may have left a lot of jobs out of the analysis. Depending on how many of these lower paying jobs were left out, and on how many of the jobs that were left out require basic digital skills, the comparisons of job availability and job growth over time that Burning Glass reported may overestimate the benefits  of acquiring basic digital skills.

The second concern arises from the Burning Glass definition of the middle skill market as including jobs for which more than 20% of the job postings did not demand a college degree. This means that jobs in their middle-college gradsskill job pool may come from job categories in which as many as 79% of the postings demand a college degree.  This definition may have led them to select a group of jobs for which a large proportion, perhaps a significant majority, require a college degree. Burning Glass did not provide an analysis of their data based on the traditional view that defines middle skill jobs as those that require a high school diploma without a college degree. Without that analysis it is impossible to tell whether there is a demand for digital skills in jobs that are available to people who do not have a college degree.

There is a third concern that does not stem from the way Burning Glass defined the middle -skill job market. Burning Glass compiled their data from online job listings.  However, there may be many jobs that demand at least a high school diploma that are not listed online. If there are a lot of these jobs relative to the number of jobs that are listed online, then it is important to keep in mind that the conclusions drawn in the Burning Glass report apply to the limited group of middle-skill jobs (as defined by Burning Glass) that are listed online rather than to the entire group of middle-skill jobs that are available to the job seeker.

These three factors – the absence of jobs that are not listed online, the absence of jobs that pay less than $15 per hour, and the inclusion of jobs that demand a college degree – substantially weaken the value of the Burning Glass report for job seekers who are in the traditional middle-skill job category defined as having a high school diploma without a college degree. They do not undermine the value of the report for those interested in the skill requirements for types of jobs that once demanded a high school diploma and now demand a college degree. The Burning Glass report is very useful for one group and not very useful for the other. Burning Glass could have provided a report that was useful to both groups had they analyzed their data using both the traditional and their modified definitions of the middle-skill job market and compared the results.

Are basic digital productivity skills useful for the middle skill job market? For the middle skill market as defined by Burning Glass, most definately. For job seekers with a high school diploma and no college degree, having these skills certainly can’t hurt. However, for people without a college degree the Burning Skills report provides no useful information for answering this question one way or the other.


About Kevin Murnane

I am a cognitive scientist, a freelance writer and author (Nutrition for Cyclists: Eating and Drinking Before, During and After the Ride), a musician (Parametric Monkey - stream on Spotify, Soundcloud and YouTube), a bookstore owner (Monkey Books - first edition mystery, science fiction, fantasy and more, listed on ABE books, Amazon and Biblio), and a retired house painter, children's theater actor & owner, and university professor. I'm also a regular contributor to the technology section at Forbes and I write a cycling blog called Tuned In To Cycling. You can follow me on twitter @TheInfoMonkey and contact me at
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