Thanks to computerized machines, Webb Wheel hasn't added a factory worker in three years, though it's making 300,000 more drums annually, a 25 percent increase.
"Everyone is waiting for the unemployment rate to drop, but I don't know if it will much," Ricketts says. "Companies in the recession learned to be more efficient, and they're not going to go back."
In Europe, companies couldn't go back even if they wanted to. The 17 countries that use the euro slipped into another recession 14 months ago, in November 2011. The current unemployment rate is a record 11.8 percent.
European companies had been using technology to replace midpay workers for years, and now that has accelerated.
"The recessions have amplified the trend," says Goos, the Belgian economist. "New jobs are being created, but not the middle-pay ones."
In Canada, a 2011 study by economists at the University of British Columbia and York University in Toronto found a similar pattern of middle-class losses, though they were working with older data. In the 15 years through 2006, the share of total jobs held by many midpay, midskill occupations shrank. The share held by foremen fell 37 percent, workers in administrative and senior clerical roles fell 18 percent and those in sales and service fell 12 percent.
In Japan, a 2009 report from Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo documented a "substantial" drop in midpay, midskill jobs in the five years through 2005, and linked it to technology.
Developing economies have been spared the technological onslaught â¿¿ for now. Countries like Brazil and China are still growing middle-class jobs because they're shifting from export-driven to consumer-based economies. But even they are beginning to use more machines in manufacturing. The cheap labor they relied on to make goods from apparel to electronics is no longer so cheap as their living standards rise.