Most US job openings are for low-skill, low-pay workers

A cashier helps a customer at a Walmart in Milwaukee. In the U.S., cashier is the No. 3 most in-demand occupation, according to U.S. Labor Department data, but like most job openings these days, the position is a low-paying one.

In a post-recession world where many once-familiar occupations continue to automate, move offshore or disappear outright, one of the most basic questions remains:

Who’s hiring?

It turns out the vast preponderance of job openings these days consists of low-skill, hourly wage work with high turnover.

The current slate of “help wanted” ads overwhelmingly involves cashiers, waitresses and waiters, personal care aides, janitors, those who stock store shelves, and the likes of Hardee’s and Taco Bell.

Of the top 10 “Occupations with the Most Openings,” nine fall into government-designated wage categories of “very low” and “low,” according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor.

The proliferation of bottom-rung openings casts a light on an epidemic transformation within the national economy, one that has been accompanied by a long-term contraction of middle-skill occupations that often pay family-supporting wages.

“Workers in many types of middle-rank positions — such as skilled production-line workers and people in clerical or administrative jobs — have had to migrate into jobs as food-service workers, home health-care aides, child-care employees and security guards,” according to a study by David Autor, economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Autor describes this concentration of Americans into low-skill jobs as the “polarization” of the U.S. labor market.

High-skill, high-pay workers, who are essential in a tech-driven economy, have a growing share of opportunities, his research shows. In a trend that gathered pace in the 1980s and ’90s, however, the low end of the economy has broadened outward like a pyramid with a disproportionately wide base.

“This is not an overall improvement in job quality,” Autor said. “The problem with many of these jobs is they require fairly generic skill sets, which means workers have limited negotiating power and are fairly interchangeable. These are not, in general, attractive jobs.”

The statistical snapshots of the most in-demand jobs, however, aren’t well known. Surprisingly few experts study the perennially practical question of where actual jobs can be found, particularly compared with the armies of analysts who react furiously to every backward-looking unemployment index.

The Labor Department’s rankings of job openings don’t attract much attention because the agency doesn’t include them in its Bureau of Labor Statistics database, where postings often trigger wild swings in world stock markets. Instead, the Labor Department hosts it in-demand jobs on a website called CareerOneStop.

What’s remarkable about the rankings is how deeply the low-wage sector — once seen as temporary and transitional — has entrenched itself in the world of work.

According to the Labor Department, the No. 1 employment opportunity in the U.S. is for retail salespeople.

Typical retail work requires “less than high school” education.

Retail jobs do not always pay well, but there are plenty of them: Nearly 200,000 open up on average each year in the U.S.

At the Labor Department, officials have developed complex models to predict annual demand for occupations. The figures on CareerOneStop are updated every two years, meaning the estimates do not reflect an exact real-time tally of openings. To create its rankings, the Labor Department culls data from each state as well as the Bureau of Labor Statistics. High turnover, which leads to more openings, is among the factors in the rankings, said Jason Kuruvilla, a spokesman for the Labor Department.

The estimates include hourly and annual wage levels for each occupation in each state — an average cashier grosses $18,500 a year in Wisconsin but $20,600 in California, for example.

CareerOneStop also ranks the fastest growing occupations. Those show high growth, but often off a low base. The nation’s leading high-growth occupation is called “industrial-organizational psychologist,” which requires a master’s degree and pays $80,300 a year. Those openings are projected to grow over 50 percent by 2022, albeit with only 1,600 positions openings per year nationally.

The No. 2 and No. 3 fastest-growing occupations are personal care aides ($20,100 a year, requiring less than high school education), followed by home health aides ($21,000 a year; less than high school education).

At the other end of the spectrum are what the Labor Department calls occupations with declining employment.

Many of the fast-disappearing jobs pay well, but the list evokes an earlier age: data entry workers, meter readers, travel agents, typists, loggers, locomotive firers, motion picture projectionists, reporters and correspondents, and multiple categories of postal workers.

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Chris Etling is a copy editor and paginator at the Arizona Daily Sun. He's worked for the Daily Sun since November 2009.

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