The disappearance of midwage, midskill jobs is part of a longer-term trend that some refer to as a hollowing out of the work force, though it has probably been accelerated by government layoffs.
“The overarching message here is we don’t just have a jobs deficit; we have a ‘good jobs’ deficit,” said Annette Bernhardt, the report’s author and a policy co-director at the National Employment Law Project, a liberal research and advocacy group.
The report looked at 366 occupations tracked by the Labor Department and clumped them into three equal groups by wage, with each representing a third of American employment in 2008. The middle third — occupations in fields like construction, manufacturing and information, with median hourly wages of $13.84 to $21.13 — accounted for 60 percent of job losses from the beginning of 2008 to early 2010.
The job market has turned around since then, but those fields have represented only 22 percent of total job growth. Higher-wage occupations — those with a median wage of $21.14 to $54.55 — represented 19 percent of job losses when employment was falling, and 20 percent of job gains when employment began growing again.
Lower-wage occupations, with median hourly wages of $7.69 to $13.83, accounted for 21 percent of job losses during the retraction. Since employment started expanding, they have accounted for 58 percent of all job growth.
The occupations with the fastest growth were retail sales (at a median wage of $10.97 an hour) and food preparation workers ($9.04 an hour). Each category has grown by more than 300,000 workers since June 2009.
Some of these new, lower-paying jobs are being taken by people just entering the labor force, like recent high school and college graduates. Many, though, are being filled by older workers who lost more lucrative jobs in the recession and were forced to take something to scrape by.
Over the last few decades, the number of midwage, midskill jobs has stagnated or declined as employers chose to automate routine tasks or to move them offshore.
Job growth has been concentrated in positions that tend to fall into two categories: manual work that must be done in person, like styling hair or serving food, which usually pays relatively little; and more creative, design-oriented work like engineering or surgery, which often pays quite well.
Since 2001, employment has grown 8.7 percent in lower-wage occupations and 6.6 percent in high-wage ones. Over that period, midwage occupation employment has fallen by 7.3 percent.
This “polarization” of skills and wages has been documented meticulously by David H. Autor, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A recent study found that this polarization accelerated in the last three recessions, particularly the last one, as financial pressures forced companies to reorganize more quickly.
“This is not just a nice, smooth process,” said Henry E. Siu, an economics professor at the University of British Columbia, who helped write the recent study about polarization and the business cycle. “A lot of these jobs were suddenly wiped out during recession and are not coming back.”
On top of private sector revamps, state and local governments have been shedding workers in recent years. Those jobs lost in the public sector have been primarily in mid and higher-wage positions, according to Ms. Bernhardt’s analysis.
“Whenever you look at data like these, there is this tendency to get overwhelmed, that there are these inevitable, big macro forces causing this polarization and we can’t do anything about them. In fact, we can,” Ms. Bernhardt said. She called for more funds for states to stem losses in the public sector and federal infrastructure projects to employ idled construction workers. Both proposals have faced resistance from Republicans in Congress.Majority of New Jobs Pay Low Wages, Study Finds (New York Times)
In the past few decades, workers have generally lost ground against employers in negotiating terms of employment. Defined-benefit pension plans have been replaced by 401(K)s, and then employers sometimes cut the matching contributions. A smaller percentage of private-sector jobs today come with health insurance, while many workers who have insurance have to pay more for it. Given globalization, the furious pace of mergers and acquisitions, and continuous cost pressures, job security is increasingly tenuous. And so the main thing employees—and potential employees—look at when evaluating their current jobs and potential offers is wages. And here, too, corporate America hasn't been delivering. The median income in 2008 was below what it was in 1998.Is Any Job Better Than No Job? Employers shouldn't be surprised that Americans won't take their crummy, low-wage jobs. (Slate) On a related note:
It doesn't sound to me like there's a huge shortage of qualified workers here. It sounds to me like Union Pacific is whining about the fact that it took them all of ten hiring sessions to fill their quota even though this is a really tough job and they aren't paying market rates for workers. It's as if they think that actually having to make a modest effort to attract job candidates is an inversion of the natural order or something. Speaking for myself, I think I'll hold off on breaking out the violins.Skilled Jobs Go Begging? Not Quite. (Kevin Drum)