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Correction to This Article
Charts published with a Sept. 20 front-page story showing a decline from 1967 to 2003 in the percentage of households earning $35,000 to $49,999 labeled that bracket as including the median income level. The median levels for 1967 and 1968 were $33,338 and $34,746, respectively. The charts' brackets should have been adjusted to take that into account.
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As Income Gap Widens, Uncertainty Spreads

Moore started looking for computer jobs instead. He and Terry both had luck at Circuit City.

Moore's first job disappeared when the company closed a tech support center and began moving its call center operations to India. His second job -- designing ads for the recruitment division -- evaporated when the tech bubble burst. His last job there ended in January when the database he built to manage marketing projects worked so well that the company no longer needed the help of a human.

Chuck Moore plays with his son, Chase, 3, before bedtime. This past weekend, Moore accepted a job as a veterinary assistant for half what he had been making in his old job. (Jay Paul For The Washington Post)

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Transcript: Washington Post staff writer Griff Witte was online to field questions and comments about this article.
Video: The Washington Post's Griff Witte discusses the shift in the workforce.
The Future Job Market
A Shifting Landscape
Richmond at a Glance
About This Series

This is the first in an occasional series about the changes roiling the middle of the American workforce -- the disappearance of many jobs that pay near the national average of $17 per hour, with benefits such as health care and pensions. Other stories in the series will address how companies are moving work to temporary employees and people in other countries, and will look at the prospects for new types of jobs to take the place of those lost.

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Until this past weekend, his job search had gone like this: 320 résumés sent out, six calls back. Three interviews. No offers. At first, he had put his old salary on his résumé: $40,000. Later he switched to, "negotiable."

"I've already been willing to go down 10 [thousand dollars]. And if it goes much longer, I might have to go down 15. For a guy with a bachelor's degree to take $25,000, I might as well be working at McDonald's," Moore said in August. "There's something not right about that."

Yet on Saturday, when an animal hospital offered him work as a veterinary assistant -- for half what he had been making in his old job and no benefits -- he accepted immediately. He starts today, cleaning out kennels and, he hopes, learning how to use the X-ray machines or work in the lab so he can add to his repertoire of skills.

Moore has thought of going back for his master's degree. But that's hardly an option when he has a 3-year-old son, not to mention a mortgage and student loans.

Instead, to help make ends meet, he's been teaching computer basics at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, where his students can identify with their teacher's plight. One is a 20-year Army veteran who found that the best he could do without college was become a salesman at Lowe's, the home-improvement store. He was taking Moore's class so he could go to a four-year college in the fall.

"The job market for people like me is not that good," said the man, Albert DiCicco. "Maybe it is for people with bachelor's degrees."

Lately, DiCicco's predicament has been on the mind of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.

In June, Greenspan warned that a shortage of highly skilled workers and a surplus of those with fewer skills has meant wages for the lower half of the income scale have remained stagnant, while the top quarter of earners sprints away. Greenspan said the skills mismatch "can and must be addressed, because I think that it's creating an increasing concentration of incomes in this country and, for a democratic society, that is not a very desirable thing to allow to happen."

But it already has happened. The gap between the wages of a 30-year-old male high school graduate and a 30-year-old male college graduate was 17 percent as of 1979, according to analysis by Harvard's Murnane and MIT's Levy in their book, "The New Division of Labor." Now it tops 50 percent, with an even larger differential for women. Real wages for both high school graduates and high school dropouts have actually fallen since the 1970s. Meanwhile, wages for college graduates -- who make up only about a quarter of the adult population -- have soared upward.

The trend seems poised to continue. The list of the 30 jobs the Labor Department predicts will grow the most through 2012 includes high-paying positions such as postsecondary teachers, software engineers and management analysts. But nearly all require a college degree. There are also plenty of jobs that demand no college -- including retail sales and security guard -- but they pay a low wage.

And yet, as Moore's situation shows, a college diploma offers a porous shield when demand for a certain skill evaporates. College graduates have, in recent years, become an increasingly large percentage of the long-term unemployed. When they find new work, their salary cuts have been especially deep.

The optimists among economists -- and there are many -- point to trends that could help mitigate the pain of job losses and lead to future growth. One is the coming mass retirement of baby boomers, which could leave plenty of openings for those trying to break into the workforce. Economists tend to believe, too, that trade and technology will ultimately create new efficiencies that produce far more jobs than they destroy and leave everyone, on average, better off.

A Tough Climb

Scott Clark isn't sure if he will emerge better off. Spending day and night in the cab of a van was not exactly how he planned to live out his fifties and sixties, but he'll get by. He's even managed to save enough money to begin cutting his hours from 15 down to 11.

It's the end of the day now and as Clark battles the Richmond evening rush hour, his thoughts are turning to home. He's already fulfilled his part of the American dream, doing better than his parents did. "Everybody tells me I'm low class," Clark says, chuckling faintly. "But we're middle class. We're definitely middle class."

Yet his kids -- his son is 26 and his twin daughters are 21 -- still live at home because they can't afford places of their own. None of them went to college, although his daughters had 3.8 grade-point averages in high school and his son aced the SATs. They're saving to go back to school -- eventually. In the meantime, they work. His son lays carpet and his daughters stock shelves in a warehouse.

Will they be able to move up the economic ladder, just like he did? Clark ponders the question. After a long day, he is showing the strain, getting sleepy with his regular bedtime of 6:30 p.m. fast approaching.

"I really don't know. It's just too uncertain. It really is. There's nothing there," he says, turning completely serious for the first time all day. "There's nothing you can just count on. I wish there was."

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