Could ‘mid-tech’ jobs elevate more people and non-coastal places?

Rachel Wilson (L), of Rockville, Maryland, speaks with Yash Parbhu of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania while learning about the code for some of Google's new APIs at the Google I/O developers conference in San Francisco June 26, 2014. Women attendees constituted 20% of the conference's attendance this year, up from 8% last year. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage   (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY) - GM1EA6R0IP701

Long before its current crises, tech had a reputation for elitism. Because they appeared inaccessible to people without a technical degree, the sector’s high-paying jobs were assumed to exacerbate economic divides in regions, not narrow them. In fact, recent Metro Program research on the “digitalization” of the economy shows the tendency of digital technologies to polarize as well as empower.

And yet, for all that, more and more evidence is accumulating to suggest that while tech jobs might not be easy to access, they do offer the potential to build inclusive growth and address regional inequality.

For several years, researchers at Burning Glass Technologies and other organizations have argued for the existence of a middle-skill portion of “high-tech.” Likewise, a steady stream of features on sites like MonsterForbes, and have touted the “7 Tech Jobs You Can Get Without a Degree” or the “10 High-Paying Tech Jobs You Can Get Without a College Degree.” Such discussion of “new collar” jobs has been giving credence to the idea that tech might be a more accessible source of upward mobility for “blue-collar” workers and places, as well as underrepresented populations, than many have previously thought.

What do our own data say? Our latest analysis contributes to this emerging picture. Call it “mid-tech,” but at any rate it’s clear that a surprisingly large share of classic tech jobs are actually quite accessible to workers without a bachelor’s degree. Accordingly, our numbers suggest tech may also be a more plausible economic development strategy for a wider array of cities and regions than conventional knowledge suggests, especially as IT continues to spread.

To dig beneath the standard view, in any event, we linked the 13 high-tech occupations that comprise the computer and mathematical (C&M) occupational group to government data on educational attainment from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ O*NET database. By doing that, we were able to get a feel for the educational attainment of the tech workforce as it varies across occupations. And here a clear picture emerges.

Plenty of “high-tech” jobs are held by workers without bachelor’s degrees 

Right off it’s clear at the national level that substantial numbers of the tech sector’s core technical jobs are held by workers without bachelor’s degrees.

Here’s what this looks like at the national level:


As the table shows, nearly one-third (30 percent) of the workers in three of the 13 C&M occupations (computer network architects, network support specialists, and computer systems analysts) do not hold a bachelor’s degree. These occupations contain some 914,000 workers, of whom fully 350,000 lack a B.A. Such occupations and workers represent the heart of “mid-tech” occupations.

Mid-tech employment also exists throughout the tech sector. In addition to the 350,000 non-B.A. workers in the three core mid-tech occupations, another 160,000 sub-B.A. workers are employed in the 10 other C&M occupations. This ranges from significant double-digit presence in three occupations (including programming, other computer work, and information security analysis) to smaller presences in software development. Notably, less than five percent of software systems developers and application developers lack a college degree. But still, one in five computer programmers is working without a college degree.

Add all this up and half a million core technical workers in high-tech—some 17 percent of them—lack a bachelor’s degree. This is intriguing, as solid statistical evidence confirms that educational pedigree isn’t a non-negotiable requirement in tech. The sector’s voracious need for talent combined with its need for specific technical skills represents a genuine opportunity for inclusion outside the typical college-based networks.

Many of the nation’s “mid-tech” opportunity jobs lie outside the classic tech hubs

The location of mid-tech jobs also contradicts the common narrative of coastal tech dominance. Although these jobs are available almost everywhere, they compose especially large shares of local tech employment in an array of metros often far from the classic tech centers.

Here are some highlights of this in a table:


And here’s what the patterns look like, mapped:


The first thing to say about these displays is that while the biggest, most famous tech meccas are frequently along the coasts and in Texas, the largest shares of C&M employment in mid-tech roles are often elsewhere. Often, while the famous tech centers employ lower concentrations of mid-tech workers, the shares are much higher in “second-tier,” mid-sized, and inland cities. This likely reflects a contrast between the demand for high-level “creative” work in the classic tech agglomerations and work focused on the “build-out,” installation, and use of technology in other markets.

In any event, the mid-tech share of C&M employment remains below 20 percent in such hard-core hubs as San Francisco (19.1 percent), Seattle (16.9 percent), and Boston (14.1 percent). By contrast, the mid-tech share of regional C&M employment ranges much higher in a less glamorous list of more workaday locations: Olympia, Wash. (where mid-tech employment pushes 60 percent of C&M employment); Jackson, Mich. (38.7 percent); and Lakeland, Fla. (36.7 percent). Ranking high among the 20 metros with mid-tech concentrations are many state capitals (Olympia; Springfield, Ill.; Jackson, Miss.; and Tallahassee, Fla.) and university towns (Bloomington, Ind.; Ames, Iowa; and Raleigh, NC). In all of these places, the installation and maintenance of large digital networks in organizations like state government or universities ensures that accessible mid-tech work composes more than 30 percent of the local tech sector.

The other thing to say about the geography of mid-tech employment is that while these jobs are everywhere, they are especially concentrated in mid-sized Midwestern metros. This is intriguing, given that many discussions have centered on the desirability of Big Tech placing more of its work in the lower-cost Heartland, in part as a way to tamp down the nation’s troubling economic gaps. But again the pattern is clear. While on average mid-tech makes up 21.6 percent of metros’ C&M employment, mid-tech jobs compose more than one-quarter of all tech employment in numerous major Midwestern metros. Such places include Columbus, Ohio; Cincinnati;St. Louis; Detroit; Nashville; and Minneapolis-St. Paul. This suggests not just that tech is different (more accessible, and more about implementation than creative leaps) in the Midwest, but also confirms that significant talent resides there, and works at a significant discount, given the low cost of living in the region.

In sum, as the current tech boom continues, mid-tech work is beginning to look increasingly like a real opportunity for people with a passion for tech but no college degree, as well as for Heartland economic development. On both fronts, mid-level tech employment has the power to make tech more relevant and accessible.

Data on the incidence of “mid-tech” jobs for 50 states, 100 large metropolitan areas, and 125 smaller metros is available here.