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One Option For Reviving A Shrinking Middle Class: Value Skills, Not Just Education

Occupational mobility family Penn Hills
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Marquisha Robinson and her three children stand outside of their Penn Hills home.

Nearly a decade after dropping out of high school in 2011, Marquisha Robinson found herself stuck in a dead-end career: She moved from job to job in food service and retail but wasn’t getting anywhere.

“I was working maybe two and three jobs at a time,” Robinson said. “I was really getting the hours that were available instead of a solid, stable position. … There was really nothing I could do at that point but search for something that would give me more hours.”

Occupational mobility artwork from kids
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Marquisha Robinson and two of her daughters look at artwork displayed on their kitchen fridge.

Robinson, 27, finished her high school diploma two years ago and even enrolled in college. But she kept getting turned down for better-paying work.

“It was the education,” Robinson said. “The requirements would say a two-year degree or certain things like that that I just didn't have.”

Robinson finally got a break when she applied for a job with UPMC in March 2020. Around the same time, the health-care giant launched its “Pathways to Work” program to recruit people who, while lacking an academic credential, have job skills that can translate to higher-paid work.

Robinson’s customer-service experience, for example, set her up to work from home as a pharmacy services representative for UPMC Health Plan. She calls patients to help them keep up with prescriptions.

“I've always liked to talk to people. I’ve always liked to interact with people. So really, it was easy for me to catch on,” Robinson said.
She said her wages are $6 an hour higher at UPMC than in her previous job stocking shelves overnight at Target.

With the money, Robinson and her fiancé bought a house in Penn Hills. They now have a yard where Robinson’s daughters can play with their newly adopted puppy.

Since becoming a pharmacy services representative, Robinson said, “My life has changed, I’ll say, maybe like 100 percent, honestly: Things that I never imagined are happening. … My kids are happier than I’ve ever seen them before.”

Occupational mobility microphone
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Marquisha Robinson's middle daughter excitedly holds a microphone before her mom is interviewed by WESA's An-Li Herring at the family's Penn Hills home.

Breaking the downward cycle

Robinson’s experience of upward mobility has become increasingly rare, especially for people without four-year college degrees. The United States middle class has been shrinking for decades, with income growth favoring top earners at the same time that wages for people without a four-year college degree have fallen.

But research released last year by the Federal Reserve shows that programs like UPMC’s could be a ladder up for low-wage workers.

The study looked at lower-wage occupations in 33 metro areas, including Pittsburgh. It found that about half of those jobs rely on a substantial share of the same skills that qualify people for positions that pay above the national annual median wage – and whose tasks typically do not require a bachelor’s degree.

Occupational mobility mothers day gift
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
A craft made by one of Marquisha Robinson's daughters for Mother's Day displayed in the family's living room.

Workers who make that switch could earn an average of nearly $15,000 more a year, according to the research.

“People for a long period of time have felt like they've been left behind in the economy, but there are … good jobs out there,” Philadelphia Fed President Patrick Harker said. “We use the word ‘low-skill,’ [but] everybody has some kind of skill.”

Harker’s office collaborated on the “occupational mobility” research with the Cleveland Fed. Economists used their findings to create an online tool that allows users to map possible career trajectories. And on June 25, the Cleveland Fed will host a free conference session on the mobility study.

One promising way to encourage job transitions, Harker said, is an initiative known as a “pay-for-success” system. In such programs, the government could share the risk of a new hire by paying some or all of their wages early on. If a worker stays on the job for a certain number of months, the employer reimburses the government for those costs.

State and federal officials are exploring the concept since private philanthropies have gotten encouraging results.

Occupational mobility Marquisha at work
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Marquisha Robinson shows her home-office set-up, while her youngest daughter "helps."

‘Diamonds in our backyard’

But Harker said, in the long run, employers would also be wise to cultivate the talent they already have.

“Let's look for the diamonds in our backyard,” Harker said. “Your best employees are probably right there and you just need to recognize that and invest in them … before we go out and try to constantly hire from outside in a very competitive market.”

That kind of thinking has allowed Adam Helphenstine to advance at Precision Marshall, a specialty steel manufacturer in Washington, Pa.

Helphenstine, 37, has been with the firm for nearly a decade, and while he hasn’t benefited from a pay-for-success program himself, his is the kind of story such programs hope to repeat.

He started on the floor after getting his associate’s degree and being employed elsewhere as an ironworker. After Precision Marshall promoted him to a sales position five years ago, he became an inventory analyst and then a materials manager. Today, he manages all of the plant’s operations.

Helphenstine for web.jpg
An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA
Adam Helphenstine at work.

That transition required him to pick up new computer skills through on-the-job training. But Helphenstine said his experience on the shop floor made for a smooth shift to the office world.

“Being here doing it, it made it a quick turnaround – basically very minimal training. You can basically go into the next job, for the most part, really quickly,” he said.

Precision Marshall CEO Tom Sedlack said he hasn’t always gotten that kind of return from college graduates.

“I have an MBA, and I've seen this before, where people say because they think they have a college degree or an advanced degree, they think they're going to get the corner office,” Sedlack said. “Or [they think], ‘Ok, so who's going to make that spreadsheet for me?’ No, you’re the one making the spreadsheet.”

Sedlack noted that some college graduates at his company have excelled. But, he said, it’s not academic credentials that make the biggest difference.

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at aherring@wesa.fm.
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