'Ongoing Polarization' in the U.S. Labor Market

May 26, 2010

Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist David Autor describes an ongoing polarization in the U.S. labor market, with "expanding job opportunity in both high-skill, high-wage occupations and low-skill, low-wage occupations, coupled with contracting opportunities in middle-wage, middle-skill white-collar and blue-collar jobs."

In his recent paper for the Center for American Progress and The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, Autor implies that middle-skill jobs today mostly require the performance of routine manual or clerical tasks for which demand is being replaced by new technology and global forces while nonroutine tasks appear either in high-skill jobs requiring a four-year college degree or higher or low-wage service jobs requiring no postsecondary skills. 

In contrast, a few recent papers I have written with Urban Institute economist Robert Lerman suggest that employment in many middle-skill job categories remains robust, with growing demand and opportunities for noncollege graduates in some areas.

Which view is more accurate? Indeed, do they reflect substantively different views of the labor market, or mostly differences in how jobs are defined and categorized? And what do these views suggest about education and workforce policies for the U.S.?

Below I summarize both sets of arguments and the data on which they are based. Autor is absolutely correct that there has been some shrinkage in middle-skill jobs requiring only the performance of routine tasks, especially production jobs for equipment operators and laborers and office jobs for clerical workers.

But other categories of middle-skill jobs, which involve the performance of many nonroutine tasks and often require some postsecondary education or training—among them technician jobs and many service jobs in health care —are not shrinking to any real extent. It is important to acknowledge major employment opportunities for noncollege graduates in these latter categories of middle-skill jobs. 

Read the full report.