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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Here's one issue that's bound to come up at tonight's debate, the nation's jobs problem. The unemployment rate now stands at 8.6 percent. That means roughly 13 million Americans are looking for work. NPR and the Kaiser family foundation recently surveyed hundreds of people who've been out of work for at least a year.

And as NPR's Chris Arnold reports, many of them believe the economy simply doesn't need what they have to offer.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: If you're unemployed, it can be painfully clear when you don't have the right skills to land a good job. And 40 percent of people who we surveyed thought that they did not have the education and training needed to be competitive in the current jobs market.

JOANNE GOLDSTEIN: If any of you are interested in sharing with us, I would love to hear your stories of how you...

ARNOLD: That's the Massachusetts State Secretary of Labor Joanne Goldstein. She recently visited a job training program set up by a high tech manufacturing company. One of the students - he's a big strong guy and a former Army tank driver - stands up to answer her question.

PAUL JOHN BAPTISTE: My name is Paul John Baptiste and I came from the career center of Lynn.

ARNOLD: Paul John Baptiste says that he used to repair those little glass-walled shelters at bus stops.

GOLDSTEIN: Like the structure.

BAPTISTE: The structure, yeah. I build and repaired those when the kids break the glass. You know, and I'll be there to repair it and everything like that. But unfortunately, I got laid off.

ARNOLD: After that, Baptiste worked for a bit as one of those guys who comes in a pick-up truck to jumpstart your car. It's called road-side assistance. But he says he was on the overnight shift. And he started thinking that working in the rain on the side of the highway for not much pay was probably not the best career path. Especially one night, he says the lug nuts on a Porsche were on so tight he just couldn't get off the flat tire.

BAPTISTE: I was banging at least 15 to 20 minutes with a hammer, just standing on the pry bar. I was jumping on everything, I was - but it took an hour in the rain. So it was...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BAPTISTE: Just to get a tire off. So...

ARNOLD: So, Baptiste is now trying to make a leap, from one part of the labor market to another. He's been taking classes to learn how to do high-end computer-controlled machining. That is to work in a high-tech factory making parts for jet airplanes, instead of basically just banging on stuff with a hammer.

And it's interesting, economists say that right now there are jobs in both those very low and high-skilled categories. But it's the middle-skill-level jobs where it's now hardest to find work.

DAVID AUTOR: Clerical, administrative support, sales occupations, pushing paper, filing, you know, sorting, calculating, retrieving; many of those things are now increasingly automated.

ARNOLD: David Autor is an economist at MIT. He says for 20 years, mid-level skill jobs have been outsourced and automated. Just look at Home Depot, you used to have a dozen cashiers, and now you have two or three cashiers and a bunch of self-checkout machines.

So, since the recession hit, that's made such jobs even harder to come by. And actually that's pushed many people into lower-skilled work - fixing flat tires or delivering pizza.

AUTOR: We see an increasing phenomenon of basically, you know, adults working in what people were thought of as teenage jobs. And that's exactly this. That basically, you know, when things hollow-out in the middle, people naturally move down towards, you know, where opportunities still exist. And that's in these jobs. They're not the jobs they'd prefer to do, but it's better than non-employment.

ARNOLD: And that would be like mowing grass or...

AUTOR: Or food service. You know, fast food jobs are a classic example of that.

ARNOLD: The good news of sorts, Autor says, is that going forward there will be plenty of these lower-skilled jobs around. You can't outsource janitorial work. But the bad news, of course, is that the pay is very low.

So, now more than ever, to get a job that pays well, Autor says you need specialized training or education to get into that upper tier skill level, where the jobs are more likely to be.

Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston.

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