Rocket Scientists, Part 2

May 19th, 2011 at 10:13 pm

The stalwart Bureau of Labor Statistics happened to release a new report on workers by occupation that caught my eye in the context of my earlier post regarding skill demands in occupations expected to add the most jobs.

This release focuses on jobs and wages in the hundreds of occupations that comprise our job market today (more precisely, from May 2010), and the chart below shows the top ten occupations with the most jobs.  Together, these jobs accounted for more than 20% of all jobs—that’s over 25 million jobs.

What’s notable here again is that, with a few exceptions (e.g., registered nurses) these are not jobs that typically demand high levels of education.  Moreover, as numerous commenters noted, they are jobs that risk being of low quality.  As the Bureau notes:

“Most of the largest occupations were relatively low paying. Of the 10 largest occupations, only registered nurses had an average wage above the U.S. all-occupations mean of $21.35 per hour or $44,410 annually. Combined food preparation and serving workers, cashiers, and waiters and waitresses were the three lowest paying of the 10 largest occupations, and also among the lowest-paying occupations overall.”

Source: BLS

So why am I harping on this point?

Not, I repeat, because we should devalue higher education.  As I stressed earlier, that remains key for individual mobility, a more productive economy, and even fewer divorces.

My point is that along with—not instead of!—policies that make higher education more accessible, we need strategies to improve the quality of these jobs as well.  The fact is, as the table in the earlier post showed, we expect to create a lot more of these types of jobs in the future (note that they’re in the “non-tradable” sector so they’re not going overseas).

Commenters mentioned unions and minimum wages, and they have traditionally helped raise wages in service jobs.  Working training can help too, though when you hear people talking about cutting “discretionary spending,” that’s where many of those training dollars reside.

But here’s another point to keep in mind.  The last time pay in jobs like these really went up was in the latter 1990s, when labor demand was strong and unemployment was low (and btw, immigration flows were greater in those years than they are now).

From the perspective of the workers who hold these types of jobs, there may be no social program more effective than full employment.

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3 comments in reply to "Rocket Scientists, Part 2"

  1. Eric says:

    Jared, why hasn’t the Obama administration considered pushing some kind of new WPA-style program to get unemployed older people back to work? This time, I’d think that some combination of “work-study”, where the “work” is some kind of meaningful job in some state or federal agency (retirees are leaving gaps in local and federal bureaucracies that can’t be replaced, because the governments are cash-strapped; at least, that’s the case where I am in CA…) and the “study” is some kind of assistance towards getting an AA from a non-profit, local community college (I believe your site pointed out yesterday that 70% of adults don’t have college degrees).

    • Eric says:

      Oops; I should’ve finished my thought there: I mean to end that last sentence fragment (starting with “This time, I’d think that…”) with “…, is appropriate.” Sorry about that…

  2. Kevin Rica says:

    “(and btw, immigration flows were greater in those years than they are now)”


    I recognize a gauntlet thrown at my feet.

    Yes, at the peak of one of the longest and most vigorous expansions in this country’s history, real wages for low-skilled workers did trend up. Job creation at 3 million/year did temporarily outpace illegal immigration. But the sad fact is that was about the only time, if memory serves, that there was a break in the downward trend of real wages for the less skilled since about 1970.

    But the real test of what is going on is what happens to wages peak-to-peak and trough-trough. So what was the real story peak-to-peak? Since 1970 in this country, how many times have the real wages of less-skilled men gone up peak to peak?

    As you yourself have pointed out, something changed about 1970 (when the “Jaws of the Snake” opened up). The tight link between productivity and real wages was broken.

    What changed in 1970? One obvious thing was a dramatic reversal of the rate of immigration.

    After decades of relatively unrestrained immigration, Congress dramatically tightened up in 1924. Then, from 1930, for the next four decades, immigrants, both as a share of the population and in absolute numbers (more died or left the country then arrived), declined. So even during the weak employment growth of the Eisenhower Administration, living standards could go up and prosperity was spread around.

    Since 1970, a vast stream of unregulated, low-skilled immigrants has sought work in this country by working cheaper. Yes, they sure do work hard and I admire them for it, but anyone who works that hard should be well compensated – but the flow of illegals has overwhelmed labor markets and assured that they, and every American worker that they compete against, will not be well compensated.