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Ask any college graduate about the skills gap, and chances are you will hear about brilliant classmates who cannot find jobs.
But the real skills gap may be elsewhere. Newly released research by Accenture, Burning Glass, and Harvard Business School suggest that employers are having a hard time filling so–called middle skills jobs–those that require more than a high school degree but less than a college degree.
Some 38 percent of the respondents to a survey of Harvard Business School alumni said it was either somewhat or very difficult to fill these middle skills jobs, and 56 percent of the respondents to an Accenture survey of HR executives said they are hard to fill.
That presents a challenge for employers. But it may also be an opportunity for students who are unsure about college and wonder if they can have a career without it.
"One of the things that we hope to accomplish with this work is we really need to legitimize middle skills jobs as a good, important career path for individuals, " said Laila Worrell, managing director at Accenture and an author of the report. "There is a bias toward BAs and BSs." But middle skills jobs, she said, account for more than half of the U.S. jobs market.
Read MoreThe best (and worst) jobs for 2014
That said, not all middle skills jobs are alike.
For example, the report found a job in production may not offer much potential, unless it involves a high degree of skill.
Burning Glass analyzed the middle skills jobs to determine what they call "career lifetime value," a measure based on current salaries and the potential future compensation in that worker's next two jobs, and determined the most promising careers are in technology and health care. Network administrators top the list with a career lifetime value of $82,452, followed by construction managers at $81,946, registered nurses at $81,475, physical therapy assistants at $82,161, and network support specialists at $80,051.
"You can definitely make a career in middle skills jobs," said a spokesman for Burning Glass.
Even entry-level middle skills jobs that start with low wages can lead to promising careers. For example, the report said, "little attention is paid to retail jobs—in fact, they are often reviled as low-paying jobs. " But a retail sales associate, who might earn roughly $10 an hour, can develop the skills to become a retail supervisor, at nearly double that hourly pay, or a financial services sales associate for almost $31 an hour.
So why are middle skills jobs going begging?
One reason is that a number of companies tend to require bachelor's degrees when they advertise middle skills openings, the study found. "In interviews, companies admitted to elevating qualification requirements to find employees with strong communication skills, leadership potential, and reliability, especially for sales and customer-facing roles. "
Burning Glass found 43 percent of advertisements for computer support specialists, also known as help desk staff, asked for a bachelor's degree, but the other qualifications were the same in all the advertisements.
Another reason middle skills are hard to find and fill is that fewer companies offer the apprenticeships and on–the–job training to develop these workers. In the Harvard Business School study, just 45 percent of respondents said they offered that kind of training, and only 22 percent of respondents to the Accenture study said they would always consider hiring someone even though they need more training.
Some employers are taking steps to develop their middle skills workforce. Volkswagen Academy, offered by Volkswagen in collaboration with Tennesse's Chattanooga State Community College, is a case in point. Similarly, BMW offers a BMW Scholars apprenticeship program in partnership with nearby South Carolina community colleges.
In health care, some community colleges offer LPN to RN programs to boost students' career prospects, and a few large teaching hospitals offer employees similar programs.
College–focused families may cringe at the thought of a "degree" from BMW Academy. But Accenture's Worrell argues many middle skills jobs lead to very rewarding careers.
Think of them as "not stratification but expansion of opportunity," she said. "There are opportunities all along the spectrum and all along the employability spectrum for our workforce."
CORRECTION: This version corrected that middle skills jobs account for more than half of the U.S. jobs market.