Work in the United States

Polarization in the Workforce

The mix of jobs available in the United States began changing many years before the recession struck, and, as mentioned above, the American Dream has not always been easy to achieve. Geography, race, gender, and other factors have always played a role in the reality of success. More recently, the increased outsourcing—or contracting a job or set of jobs to an outside source—of manufacturing jobs to developing nations has greatly diminished the number of high-paying, often unionized, blue-collar positions available. A similar problem has arisen in the white-collar sector, with many low-level clerical and support positions also being outsourced, as evidenced by the international technical-support call centers in Mumbai, India, and Newfoundland, Canada. The number of supervisory and managerial positions has been reduced as companies streamline their command structures and industries continue to consolidate through mergers. Even highly educated skilled workers such as computer programmers have seen their jobs vanish overseas.

The automation of the workplace, which replaces workers with technology, is another cause of the changes in the job market. Computers can be programmed to do many routine tasks faster and less expensively than people who used to do such tasks. Jobs like bookkeeping, clerical work, and repetitive tasks on production assembly lines all lend themselves to automation. Envision your local supermarket’s self-scan checkout aisles. The automated cashiers affixed to the units take the place of paid employees. Now one cashier can oversee transactions at six or more self-scan aisles, which was a job that used to require one cashier per aisle.

Despite the ongoing economic recovery, the job market is actually growing in some areas, but in a very polarized fashion. Polarization means that a gap has developed in the job market, with most employment opportunities at the lowest and highest levels and few jobs for those with midlevel skills and education. At one end, there has been strong demand for low-skilled, low-paying jobs in industries like food service and retail. On the other end, some research shows that in certain fields there has been a steadily increasing demand for highly skilled and educated professionals, technologists, and managers. These high-skilled positions also tend to be highly paid (Autor 2010).

The fact that some positions are highly paid while others are not is an example of the class system, an economic hierarchy in which movement (both upward and downward) between various rungs of the socioeconomic ladder is possible. Theoretically, at least, the class system as it is organized in the United States is an example of a meritocracy, an economic system that rewards merit––typically in the form of skill and hard work––with upward mobility. A theorist working in the functionalist perspective might point out that this system is designed to reward hard work, which encourages people to strive for excellence in pursuit of reward. A theorist working in the conflict perspective might counter with the thought that hard work does not guarantee success even in a meritocracy, because social capital––the accumulation of a network of social relationships and knowledge that will provide a platform from which to achieve financial success––in the form of connections or higher education are often required to access the high-paying jobs. Increasingly, we are realizing intelligence and hard work aren’t enough. If you lack knowledge of how to leverage the right names, connections, and players, you are unlikely to experience upward mobility.

With so many jobs being outsourced or eliminated by automation, what kind of jobs are there a demand for in the United States? While fishing and forestry jobs are in decline, in several markets jobs are increasing. These include community and social service, personal care and service, finance, computer and information services, and healthcare. The chart below, from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, illustrates areas of projected growth.

A graph is titled “Percent Change in Total U.S. employment, by occupational group, 2010-20 (projected).” The Architecture and Engineering industry expected a 10% increase. The Arts and Design field expected a 10% increase. The Building and Grounds Cleaning and Maintenance industry expected a 12% increase. The Business and Financial field expected a 17% increase. The Community and Social Service field expected a 24% increase. The Computer and Information Technology field expected a 22% increase. The Constructions and Extraction industry expected a 22% increase. The Education, Training, and Library field expected a 15% increase. The Entertainment and Sports field expected a 16% increase. The Farming, Fishing, and Forestry industry expected a 2% decrease. The Food Preparation and Serving industry expected a 10% increase. The Healthcare industry expected a 29% increase. The Installation, Maintenance, and Repair industry expected a 15% increase. The Legal field expected an 11% increase. The Life, Physical, and Social Science field expected a 16% increase. The Management field expected a 7% increase. The Math field expected a 7% increase. The Media and Communication field expected a 13% increase. The Office and Administrative Support field expected a 10% increase. The Personal Care and Service field expected a 27% increase. The Production field expected a 4% increase. The Protective Service industry expected an 11% increase. The Sales field expected a 13% increase. The Transportation and Material Moving industry expected a 15% increase.
This chart shows the projected growth of several occupational groups. (Graph courtesy of the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook)

The professional and related jobs, which include any number of positions, typically require significant education and training and tend to be lucrative career choices. Service jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, can include everything from jobs with the fire department to jobs scooping ice cream (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2010). There is a wide variety of training needed, and therefore an equally large wage potential discrepancy. One of the largest areas of growth by industry, rather than by occupational group (as seen above), is in the health field. This growth is across occupations, from associate-level nurse’s aides to management-level assisted-living staff. As baby boomers age, they are living longer than any generation before, and the growth of this population segment requires an increase in capacity throughout our country’s elder care system, from home healthcare nursing to geriatric nutrition.

Notably, jobs in farming are in decline. This is an area where those with less education traditionally could be assured of finding steady, if low-wage, work. With these jobs disappearing, more and more workers will find themselves untrained for the types of employment that are available.

Another projected trend in employment relates to the level of education and training required to gain and keep a job. As the chart below shows us, growth rates are higher for those with more education. Those with a professional degree or a master’s degree may expect job growth of 20 and 22 percent respectively, and jobs that require a bachelor’s degree are projected to grow 17 percent. At the other end of the spectrum, jobs that require a high school diploma or equivalent are projected to grow at only 12 percent, while jobs that require less than a high school diploma will grow 14 percent. Quite simply, without a degree, it will be more difficult to find a job. It is worth noting that these projections are based on overall growth across all occupation categories, so obviously there will be variations within different occupational areas. However, once again, those who are the least educated will be the ones least able to fulfill the American Dream.

A graph is titled “Percent Change in U.S. employment, by education category, 2010-20 (projected).” Those with a Doctoral or Professional degree could expect a 14% increase in jobs available to them. Those with a Master’s degree could expect a 16% increase in jobs available to them. Those with a Bachelor’s degree could expect an 18.4% in jobs available to them. Those with an Associate’s degree could expect a 12.1% increase in jobs available to them. Those with a Postsecondary non-degree award could expect a 17.6% increase in jobs available to them. Those with some college, but no degree could expect a 15.6% increase in jobs available to them. Those with a high school diploma or equivalent could expect a 7.9% increase in jobs available to them. Those with less than high school could expect a 10.9% increase in jobs available to them.
More education means more jobs (generally). (Graph courtesy of the U.S. Department of Labor)

In the past, rising education levels in the United States had been able to keep pace with the rise in the number of education-dependent jobs. However, since the late 1970s, men have been enrolling in college at a lower rate than women, and graduating at a rate of almost 10 percent less. The lack of male candidates reaching the education levels needed for skilled positions has opened opportunities for women, minorities, and immigrants (Wang 2011).