Exploring and Closing the Middle Skills Gap

By Alexandra Levit

As the chair of DeVry University’s Career Advisory Board, I’ve been talking about skills gaps a lot recently. Usually, I address either the technology skills gap or the soft skills gap specifically, and I’m usually referring to graduates of four-year institutions who are pursuing careers in the business world.

In reading my veteran HR thought leader Sharlyn Lauby’s new book The Recruiter’s Handbook, however, I was alerted to an entirely different type of skills gap: the middle skills gap. According to Lauby, the middle skills gap is defined as those jobs that require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year-degree. Some industries affected by the middle skills gap are finance, manufacturing, telecommunications, healthcare, and retail, and the jobs themselves range from entry-level administrative positions to highly specific operational roles.

Digging Deeper Into the Middle Skills Quandary

Why is the middle skills gap a problem? “At the heart of the issue is an oft-discussed anomaly: while millions of workers remain unemployed and an unprecedented percentage of the workforce report being underemployed, employers across industries and regions find it hard to fill open positions,” said the report by Harvard Business School, Accenture, and Burning Glass Technologies.  “A first, essential step to closing this gap is to differentiate between the vast array of middle skills jobs in order to concentrate on jobs with three important attributes: they create high value for U.S. business; they provide not only decent wages initially, but also a pathway to increasing lifetime career value for many workers; and finally, they are persistently hard-to-fill.”

Lauby recommended addressing middle skills gaps by gaining information that allows you to bridge where your workforce is today with where you want it to be in the future. Specifically, Lauby suggested the following action steps for hiring managers and recruiters:

Pay attention to what’s happening in your geographic area and industry

What’s happening on a global or national stage might not pertain to your region. Your industry could also be affected by external factors other types of organizations aren’t facing. Anyone in the position of hiring needs to know their unique market conditions.

Find credible sources of information

If you’re going to cite sources for a trend or solution, they need to be from trusted authorities. You don’t want your CEO questioning your business case.

Be a routine consumer of news

Being well-informed is always a strength, and news comes in so many formats that there’s something for everyone – including articles, videos, and podcasts.

Develop an opinion about recruiting trends for the positions you source and hire

If your CEO asked: “Do you believe this skills gap exists?” what would be your answer? Would you be able to elaborate on your position, using evidence from research to support your claims?

Ask questions: 

Based on today’s trends, you may want to question your hiring process. Think twice about whether your cited requirements match the actual job being performed, and whether you have a solid plan in place if you can’t find a candidate in the market with the right skillset.

Advocating for Middle Skills in Your Community

You may also want to encourage stakeholders around you to take action on behalf of the middle skills gap. The Accenture/Burning Glass/Harvard report recommended these best practices for different groups.

Business leaders

Champion an employer-led skills-development system to bring the same type of rigor and discipline in sourcing middle skills talent that is applied to supply chains. This includes workforce planning to identify skills gaps, ongoing and preferred relationships with talent sources, especially community and technical colleges, and building robust internal training and internship/apprenticeship programs.

Local and technical college educators

Embrace their roles as employment partners helping their students realize their ambitions by being attentive to developments in the jobs market and employer needs.


Foster collaboration between employers and educators, investing in improving publicly available information on the jobs market, revising metrics for educators and workforce development programs and championing the crucial role that middle skills jobs play in a competitive economy.


About the Author

Alexandra Levit is the chairman of DeVry University’s Career Advisory Board. She is the author of nine published books on careers and the workplace, including the international bestseller They Don’t Teach Corporate in College. A former columnist for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, she has consulted with dozens of organizations around the world about issues facing modern institutions and their employees.


1Lauby, Sharlyn (2018) The Recruiter’s Handbook: A Complete Guide for Sourcing, Selecting, and Engaging the Best Talent, Society for Human Resource Management, Washington, D.C.