Preparing Students for the Middle Skills Workplace

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Key Takeaways

  • Middle-skill jobs require less training than a traditional four-year degree, but they do require a specialized skillset best learned by doing.
  • Digital simulations of real-life work situations give students access to experiential learning that can benefit their career preparation and advancement.
  • With a shortage of trained graduates for middle-skill jobs such as medical coder and HVAC repair technician, educators need to create new ways of learning to build a better workforce.

In the next year alone, an estimated 2.5 million middle-skill jobs will be added to the workforce, accounting for a whopping 40 percent of all job growth.1 These professions — electricians, dental hygienists, paralegals, cosmetologists, automotive technicians, and plumbers — offer a solid pathway to the middle class yet require less training than a traditional four-year degree.

Still, these jobs require a specialized skillset. And what's the best way to learn something? By doing. That's where technology comes into play: digital simulations of real-life work situations give students access to experiential learning that can have a huge impact on their career preparation and advancement.

The Chronic Skills Gap

The challenge for our nation's employers will be to recruit people with the right skills to fill these particular job openings. Consider the numbers:

  • Approximately 30 people apply for every job opening.
  • Of those applicants, fewer than 20 percent meet the qualifications for the job.
  • The average time a "middle-skill" job remains open is about 40 days — about 20 days longer than a traditional job.2

Recent research [] from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute also shows that the United States needs nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs over the next decade. Two million of those jobs will probably go unfilled because of the skills gap.

Why the disconnect? In part, due to advances in technology, the requirements for many jobs now exceed what they were when the current workforce filled the same roles over the past two decades. For example, new social media applications and new websites make it easier for businesses to connect with their customers, and employers want employees to come in on day one knowing how to use these technologies with little to no training.

Many employers also indicate that current job candidates lack the soft skills needed to be successful in the workplace: problem-solving skills, critical thinking, collaboration, teamwork, creativity, interpersonal communication, leadership, social skills, and empathy. No matter how smart or competent a person is at performing a specific task, without these skills, individuals will struggle to succeed at their jobs.

Preparing Students for the Workforce

Ask anyone the best way to learn something and you'll hear "by doing." Students have several ways to get this kind of experience as it pertains to a job.

Through apprenticeships, people are paid to learn a skill or trade while they work. According to the Department of Labor [], an apprentice earns an average of $300,000 more in wages and benefits over his or her career than peers who haven't apprenticed. That said, there aren't nearly enough apprenticeship opportunities for the number of people that need on-the-job training. In fact, the Labor Department found that between 2002 and 2012, the number of apprentices in the U.S. dropped from 469,000 to 288,000; competition for the limited number of apprenticeship openings is fierce.

Internships offer another way to gain experience before entering the workforce. Intern assignments are typically short-term, but give individuals insight into a specific job before deciding on a career path. These opportunities often are unpaid, and the value varies depending on how much useful feedback the intern receives and whether the position includes exposure to real work experience.

Experiential Learning and Digital Simulations

Given the limited opportunities to learn while on the job, I believe experiential learning is one of the most valuable education tools for the next generation of workers. According to the University of Michigan's Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT), experiential learning is an engaged learning process whereby students "learn by doing" and by reflecting on the experience. These activities can include hands-on laboratory experiments, practicums, field exercises, and studio performances.

By engaging in formal, guided, authentic real-world experiences, individuals:

  • Deepen their knowledge through repeatedly acting and then reflecting on this action,
  • Develop skills through practice and reflection,
  • Support the construction of new understanding when placed in novel situations, and
  • Extend their learning as they bring their learning back to the classroom.3

David Kolb, an American educational theorist, is well known for developing the model of experiential learning in 1984. His experiential learning style theory is typically represented by a four-stage learning cycle:

  1. Concrete Experience: student encounters a new experience or has a reinterpretation of an existing experience.
  2. Reflective Observation: student reflects on the new experience.
  3. Abstract Conceptualization: student's reflection gives rise to a new idea or a modification of an existing abstract concept.
  4. Active Experimentation: student applies idea to the world around them to see what results.

While recognizing the need for real-world practice to best position people for middle-skill or vocational jobs, in reality it hasn't always been practical. In some cases, students don't have access to equipment needed to learn the skills of their professions. Through online tools and digital simulations, students can gain the practice they need and learn by doing, immersing themselves in real world–like environments that allow them room for trial and error.

A number of professions are already seeing the benefits of experiential learning and simulation in digital environments, as follows.


Although the U.S. economy lost 1.6 million jobs between January 2000 and 2011, salons and spas added 75,000 jobs. That's because no matter how tough times get, most people will not go without a regular haircut, making this field an attractive option for those looking for a "recession-proof" career.

The only real way for cosmetology students to get better at cutting hair is through repeated practice. However, students in cosmetology school might receive only two mannequins as part of their tuition — which obviously limits the amount of practice possible. Through digital simulations, students can learn basic techniques and hone their skills.

Surgical Technician

When studying to become a surgical technician, students must learn how to prep a surgical tray before it's handed off to a doctor in an operating room. Depending on the specific procedure and preferences of the surgeon, different types of equipment are needed. Digital simulations give students surgery prep practice as they set up surgical trays based on different scenarios.

An often overlooked but necessary skillset for medical students is the proper pronunciation of difficult medical terms. Like learning a new language, these terms can be hard to understand because they have unfamiliar prefixes and roots and are difficult to pronounce, spell, and remember. Proficiency is foundational for many other courses, as well as in the workplace. Using interactive audio resources, students can hear correct pronunciations, view illustrations, and watch instructional videos — a helpful option for visual learners. Using voice recognition technology, students learn to pronounce and record medical terms, receive instant feedback, and even score themselves on correct pronunciations.

Medical Insurance Billing and Coding

Medical insurance billing and coding is one of the fastest growing jobs in the United States. The average pay rate for a medical coder is $16.29 per hour, according to Coders translate all the details of a patient's record into codes to determine how much insurance companies reimburse a doctor's office or hospital. The codes, which adhere to an international standard, can then be analyzed by health care providers to determine how effectively a certain ailment is being treated.4

Our nation regularly has a 20–30 percent shortage of medical coders due to a lack of qualified candidates. When I speak with employers in medical coding, I repeatedly hear them say that students are not graduating with enough experience coding claims. Through digital simulations, students gain practice in learning how to code correctly by reading examples of what a doctor lists as a reason for a visit and interpreting it into the correct corresponding medical code. By practicing with various examples, students entering the medical coding field will find themselves better prepared to succeed in the workforce.


The U.S Department of Labor has predicted that the HVAC market will grow by 34 percent or 90,000 jobs between 2015 and 2020. At the same time, we face a massive shortage of skilled workers. A 2012 SmartMarket Report finds the top five trade areas with the greatest feared skilled labor shortage are carpenter/millworker, electrical worker, HVAC/boilermaker, concrete finisher/cement mason, and ironworker.

Of the 7.5 million people employed in the industry, the average worker is 55 years old. As the aging workforce gets closer to retirement in the next decade, we will need to ensure that more students see and take advantage of the opportunity in the HVAC workforce.

HVAC students are traditionally thought of as hands-on learners who wouldn't perform as well in an online environment. However, at Cengage Learning, we've found that 3-D, immersive lessons that mimic real-world field performance appeal to these students' way of learning. Online simulation tools challenge students to master diagnostic and troubleshooting skills across various HVAC equipment in the industry. With digital tools, they can work at their own pace through hundreds of different scenarios to build the critical thinking skills they will need to be problem solvers. This type of online learning also extends access to students in rural areas who might not live in an area abundant with physical equipment for learning.

Building a Better Workforce by Creating More Ways to Learn

The common thread here is that if we want to make sure our current and future generations of middle-skill workers — who provide services all of us desperately need — are qualified to fill the jobs available, we must create more relevant ways for students to learn. We must look beyond the brick-and-mortar institution and physical classroom for other ways to teach students the skills that employers seek and realize that not all students learn in the same way. By offering audio, visual, print, and hands-on learning materials and simulations, we can help a broader range of students succeed in their learning, setting them on the path for ample career opportunities.

The future of work is now; it's time to leverage the advancements made in technology and use them to better our students' education.


  1. MaryJo Webster, "Where the jobs are: The new blue Collar," USA TODAY, September 30, 2014; analysis of local data from Economic Modeling Specialists Intl. and CareerBuilder.
  2. Patrick Gillespie, "America's persistent problem: Unskilled workers," CNN Money, August 7, 2015.
  3. Learning Sciences Faculty Innovation Center, "Experiential Learning Defined" [], University of Texas at Austin, 2015.
  4. Mary Thompson, "Prescription for job growth: Medical coders in demand," CNBC, October 3, 2014.

Dawn Gerrain is senior vice president and general manager, Skills Group, at Cengage Learning.

© 2016 Dawn Gerrain. This EDUCAUSE Review blog is licensed under Creative Commons BY-ND 4.0.