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The State of American Jobs

April 05, 2017


Last year, the Pew Research Center– in association with the Markle Foundation – conducted a survey about the state of American jobs to shed light on how people think about work and about the skills and training needed to get ahead in our fast-changing digital economy.  The survey was based on telephone interviews with a national sample of over 5,000 adults.  Their analysis and conclusions were published last October in a highly detailed 94-page report, The State of American Jobs.

“Tectonic changes are reshaping U.S. workplaces as the economy moves deeper into the knowledge-focused age,” said the report in its opening paragraph.  “These changes are affecting the very nature of jobs by rewarding social, communications and analytical skills.  They are prodding many workers to think about lifetime commitments to retraining and upgrading their skills.  And they may be prompting a society-wide reckoning about where those constantly evolving skills should be learned – and what the role of colleges should be.”

Let me summarize some of the report’s key findings.

1. The nature of jobs is changing

The report examined the skills requirements for different kinds of jobs using the U.S. Department of Labor’s O*NET database which includes extensive information on more than 950 occupations.  Its analysis showed that between 1980 and 2015, jobs in occupations requiring high social and analytical skills had the highest growth.  Jobs in occupations requiring stronger social skills- e.g., interpersonal, communications – increased by 83%.  Employment in occupations requiring higher levels of analytical skills – e.g., quantitative, computer usage – increased by 77%.  And jobs in occupations requiring both high social and analytical skills – e.g., managerial, teaching – grew the fastest at 94%.  By comparison, employment in occupations requiring manual or physical skills – e.g., physical labor and machinery operation- increased by only 18% during the same time period.

These changes highlight our historical transition from the industrial economy of the past two centuries to a 21st-Century knowledge-based, service-oriented economy.

  “The shifting demand for skills in the modern workplace may be working to the benefit of women.  Women, who represent 47% of the overall workforce, make up the majority of workers in jobs where social or analytical skills are relatively more important, 55% and 52%, respectively. For their part, men are relatively more engaged in jobs calling for more intensive physical and manual skills, making up 70% of workers in those occupations.”

2. Most workers say they will need continuous training, and many say they don’t have the skills they need now to get ahead in their job

Employment has been rising faster in occupations requiring more preparation.  Jobs in occupations requiring average- to above-average education, training, and experience increased by 68% between 1980 and 2015, more than double the 31% increase in jobs requiring below-average preparation over the same period.

Not surprisingly, “Fully 54% of adults who are currently in the labor force say that it will be essential for them to get training and develop new skills throughout their work life to keep up with changes in the workplace.  An additional 33% say this will be important, but not essential.  Only 12% of workers say ongoing training will not be important for them.”

The most highly educated workers – 63% of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher- feel the need to keep advancing their skills throughout their careers most acutely.  So do young adults. Sixty-one percent of those between 18 and 29 see skills and training as essential.

3. A mixture of soft skills and technical skills is critical for success in today’s economy

Fully 85% of respondents ranked a mix of technical and soft skills as critical to succeed in the workforce, including how to use computers, ability to work with people from diverse backgrounds, and proficiency in writing and communications.  Also ranked highly was keeping skills up to date (82%),  training in science and math (69%), and knowing how to program, (64%).  Interpersonal skills, critical thinking, and good written and spoken communications skills top the list of skills workers said they rely on most in their jobs.

4. Pay is almost stuck in place and benefits are less plentiful

“The earnings of American workers have increased modestly in recent decades. According to the Center’s analysis, the average hourly wage, adjusted for inflation, increased from $19 in 1990 to $22 in 2015, or 16% in 25 years.  The average hourly wage of workers in jobs requiring higher levels of analytical skills increased from $23 in 1990 to $27 in 2015, or 19%.  And the average wages of workers in jobs requiring higher levels of social skills increased from $22 to $26 over that time period (15%). In the meantime, the average hourly wage of workers in jobs in which physical skills are important increased only 7%, from $16 in 1990 to $18 in 2015.”

In addition, 49% said that employer benefits were not as generous as in the past, and 44% believe they will continue to worsen in the future.  They are right according to government data:  Employer-sponsored health insurance fell from 77% in 1980 to 69% in 2013, and the share of workers with an employer-sponsored retirement plan fell from 57% in 2001 to 45% in 2015.

5. While most Americans feel secure in their jobs, many say that job security is on the decline, with competitive threats coming from several directions

When it comes to job security, the survey findings were somewhat paradoxical.  A full 88% said that they are not at all (60%) or not too likely (28%) to lose their jobs in the next 12 months.  And 49% said that they were very satisfied with their current job.  But, less educated workers feel much more vulnerable.  Almost 40% of those without a high school education said it was very likely, or fairly likely, that they might be laid off within the next 12 months, while only 7% with a bachelor’s or higher degree said the same.

On the other hand, 63% of respondents said that the average American worker has less job security than 20 or 30 years ago, and about half (51%) anticipate that jobs will become less secure in the future.  They said that threats to workers will likely come from multiple directions, including the outsourcing of jobs (80%) and imports (77%).  Other factors cited include the increased use of contract and temporary workers (57%), automation (40%), the decline of union membership (49%), and the growing number of immigrants (45%).


Continue reading the full blog, which appeared April 4, here.