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Jobs of the Future: Middle class struggles with changing job market

Job seekers line up at a job fair held by National Career Fair in Los Angeles, Calif.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: To hear politicians tell it, the election next week is about jobs: Why we lost 'em, how to get 'em back and who's fault it all is anyway.

Economists, though, will tell you a different story. That the changes that we're seeing the labor market today actually started decades ago, and that they're probably going to continue -- never mind who's in charge of Congress or who's in the White House. We're going to spend some time on the job market this week: What the past and present can tell us about our economic future.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Scott Tong reports from Raleigh, North Carolina.


Scott Tong: Bluegrass music, deep-fried pumpkin pie, beauty contests for heifers -- the North Carolina state fair's supposed to be fun.

This year, though, even that guy paid to be chipper sounds depressed.

Fair worker: Any size, any prize, any bear, anywhere. Who's next?

Here, the recession's hit working class hard. Think of it as an hourglass economy: jobs have been growing at the top for workers with the most skills, and the bottom.

But there's a hollowing out in the middle, near the median income of $46,000 per North Carolina household.

The national picture's the same: middle-skill workers' employment is down, wages are flat.

Take 53-year-old Olivia Jacob. A year and a half ago, Jacob was making $45,000 a year in the sales department at DHL, the global delivery firm.

Olivia Jacob: When I walked into my boss's office and my other boss had papers in his hands. And at the time I kiddingly said, "So are those my termination papers?" And when their faces dropped that was the answer I needed.

Now, she delivers sandwiches for $8 an hour just to get by. She's drained her savings.

Jacob: I've had to actually sell some jewelry. Which were a lot of my favorite pieces, but it's something you have to do.

Jacob has applied for work as a receptionist, pharmaceutical sales rep, ATM sales rep, customer service, customer service supervisor.

Jacob: And nothing. I think it has a lot to do with lack of a college degree.

Seventy percent of working adults are like Jacob, no degree.

MIT economist David Autor says this group is the most at risk in the hourglass economy.

David Autor: It's not that there will be no jobs in the middle, it's just that there's relatively fewer opportunities of that type. If you think about good blue-collar production jobs, or office administrative support jobs, those were often career occupations. They were things that offered certainly a sustainable standard of living.

Many economists think we've seen three straight recessions where layoffs are mostly permanent.

Why? Automation.

Autor: It wasn't long ago that many large businesses had people who just did typing and filing and phone answering. We don't see much of that anymore. Similarly, at a slightly higher level there are a lot of accounting and information processing jobs that also have been supplanted by hardware and software.

And sales jobs like Olivia Jacob's, too, as the Internet replaces face-to-face transactions.

Charles Hayes: We economic developers have an old joke.

Charles Hayes runs an area business group, the Research Triangle Regional Partnership.

Hayes: The manufacturing facility of the future will employ two people. One will be a man, and one will be a dog. And the man will be there to feed the dog. And the dog will be there to make sure the man doesn't touch the equipment.

Don't laugh too hard. Today, one of the North Carolina's hottest tech sectors squeezes out human workers, replacing them with virtual people.

Here's how: this video game simulates a hospital -- it's called a "synthetic environment."

Real-world doctors and nurses play this game as part of their training -- in lieu of actual trainers. Here, our virtual patient is suffering a virtual hemorrhage.

Computer game: We need a radiologist. She needs an embolization. Stage 3 doctor.

The game developer, Virtual Heroes, is hiring. Pay here starts at $50,000 for college-degree engineers who've kept their skills up-to-date.

Ah, that old cliche of lifelong learning. It's true, says finance professor Raghuram Rajan at the University of Chicago.

Raghuram Rajan: In a competitive world, there are no safe jobs. Every job in some sense has to continuously be reinvented. Unfortunately that's the truth.

And it hurts most for those without a college degree. They're less in demand, so they make half of what people with a higher education make.

Beth Maness in suburban Raleigh has an answer to that: to upgrade herself and start nursing school at the age of 44. As she cooks dinner with her stepson -- pork chops, mashed potatoes, black-eyed peas -- Maness describes working retail, at a call center, as a customer sales rep.

Beth Maness: Enough is enough, of being without financial security. Not only what I do, but my husband who's a carpenter has had low work. And I just want to find something so we can be sustained.

She says for the working class, economic mobility seems to be moving in just one direction -- down.

Again, David Autor at MIT:

Autor: American society is very dependent on the belief that we are meritocratic and mobile, that people's success in life depends on their smarts and on their hard work and playing by the rules, not on accidents of birth.

Thing is, for that 70 percent of Americans with modest skills and modest education, he sees fewer and fewer shots at a middle-class life.

In Raleigh, N.C., I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.

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