A Future of Low-Paying, Low-Skill Jobs?

Policy Paper
May 23, 2011

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has released its occupational employment and wages report for May 2010.1 The ten largest occupations in May 2010 accounted for more than 20 percent of total employment.

Nine out of ten of these occupations are relatively low-paying jobs, meaning jobs that paid less than the U.S. mean hourly wage of $21.35.

The two largest occupations were retail salespersons and cashiers, employing 7.6 million people and making up almost 6 percent of total U.S. employment.  Cashiers’ mean hourly wages were $9.52, less than half of the U.S. mean hourly wage, while retail salespersons earned a mean hourly wage of $12.02.

The report is taken from the Occupation Employment Statistics (OES) survey, which categorizes all non-farm, non-military workers into about 800 occupations and mails a survey to 200,000 establishments twice a year, for three years (six panels total).  ‘Occupational employment’ is the estimate of total wage and salary employment in an occupation.

The OES survey is drawn from state unemployment insurance files, and larger employers are more likely to be selected than smaller employers.  The report may, in fact, underestimate low-wage employment, by excluding the nearly 15 percent of the U.S. workforce made up by  temporary workers, day laborers, contractors, household workers and the self-employed.2

Low-skill work dominates the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ projections for the 30 fastest growing occupations from 2008 to 2018.3


1Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Occupation Employment and Wages: May 2010.  USDL-11-0722. 17 May 2011.

2Government Accountability Office.  Employment Arrangements:  improved outreach could help ensure proper work classification.  July 2006.    GAO-06-656.
In May 2010 there were about 154 million people in the workforce.  Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey. Series number: LNS11000000
The OES survey “defines employment as the number of workers who can be classified as full- or part-time employees…”  The survey therefore excludes temporary workers (temps), day laborers, contractors, household workers and the self-employed:  possibly 15 percent of the labor force.  With the exception of some contractors and self-employed, these workers are disproportionately engaged in lower-wage work, and are less likely than regular employees to have employer-sponsored health or retirement benefits. Horowitz, S., Ericson, A., & G. Wuolo.  Independent, innovative, and unprotected:  How the old safety net is failing America’s new workforce.  Freelancers Union.  2010.

3Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Employment Projections:  2008-2018.  USDL-09-1503.  10 December 2009.


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