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Mind the Skills Gap

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The pressures facing low-skilled workers are so dire they grab headlines every day.

But we don’t often hear much about the struggles of unemployed and underemployed people who are trying—but failing—to win middle skilled jobs. Middle-skilled jobs are those that don’t require a college degree but do demand some training and expertise.

Now labor market experts are paying more attention to these gigs, with the hope of creating opportunities for the millions of people who remain underemployed or unemployed.

A new report produced by Accenture, Harvard Business Review and Burning Glass Technologies notes that among job postings from 2010 to 2010, 47% are for middle-skilled jobs—and 78% of employers expect demand for these jobs to increase in the next two to three years. Yet there’s a mismatch between the skills job seekers have and the ones employers say they need to fill middle-skilled jobs.

If you’re looking to get a job in 2015, it’s worth considering these positions, which pay middle-class wages. Winning them requires some advanced reconnaissance. Use these strategies:

Know where the opportunities are. The hardest-to-fill middle-skilled jobs include computer support specialist, network administrator, nursing assistant, sales rep (in telecommunications and information-related firms) and engineering technology (in the utilities and mining industries).

But the demand of middle-skilled talent varies by industry. Here’s a breakdown:

  • Finance: The hardest-to-fill job is network/systems administrator, followed by training and development specialist, claims representative and computer support specialist.
  • Healthcare: Registered nurses are toughest for employers to find, followed by nursing assistants and network/systems administrators.
  • Information and telecommunications: The most coveted employees are network/systems support specialists. They’re followed by sales representatives and network/systems administrators.
  • Retail: The most-in demand middle-skilled hire is (you guessed it) the network/systems administrator. Also in demand are computer support specialist, training and development specialist and retail supervisor.
  • Manufacturing: The computer support specialist is king—or queen—of the hill. Also needed are network/systems administrators and customer service representatives.
  • Utilities and mining: The engineering technologist is in hot demand. Also needed are electrical engineering technicians, operations and maintenance specialists and customer service representatives.

Nail the soft skills you need. What’s holding employers back from filling many middle-skilled positions is they can’t find people with the communication, collaboration and problem-solving abilities they need, according to the research.

We can all stand to improve in these key areas. If you have the right work skills for hard-to-fill jobs but keep getting turned away, saving up for a session or two with a good career coach may be the best investment you ever make. Ask for candid feedback on what you can do to buff your skills in working with colleagues.

Can’t afford a coach? Treat a friend who is successful at work to lunch and ask for honest advice on what you can do better on these three key fronts.

Showcase your mojo. In the study, 34% of employers said they are able to find people with the right skills–but these candidates don’t have the ambition or work ethic to do the job. When you send cover letters and interview, mention examples of challenges you have tackled successfully at work to highlight the energy you’ll bring and how much you hope to accomplish in the job. You’ll stand out.

Keep training costs in check. Often, employers need people with training very specific to their needs when hiring for middle-skilled jobs. For instance, when they hire medical coders, they look for applicants who are certified, according to the report. But only one-third of medical coding graduates actually earn these certificates. That is why so many of these jobs go unfilled.

Before you invest in post-secondary training, check with the HR department at potential employers to find out exactly what skills they require for people in the job title you want—so the credential you earn is the one that gets you hired.

Also find out if potential employers have training partnerships with trade schools, community colleges or nonprofits in your area or offer in-house training or apprenticeships. Getting the specific training they seek will make you stand out—and may even give you a direct pipeline to an interview. Good, middle-skilled jobs are out there, but you’ve got to position yourself to win them.

About the Author

Elaine Pofeldt is an independent journalist who specializes in writing about entrepreneurship and careers. She was a senior editor for Fortune Small Business magazine, and her work has appeared in Fortune, Money, Forbes.com, Inc. and Crain's New York Business, among others.