State of the U.S. Workforce
By Charles Lehman
While the economy is slowly improving, workforce issues related to job creation, wage increases and social mobility remain unsatisfactory in many aspects. Unfavorable cyclical and structural trends continue to negatively impact employment opportunities. Job growth is concentrated in a few primarily low paying sectors with pay stagnation and workplace dissatisfaction major issues. Educational attainment is an important but not decisive solution, and strong employability skills are more important than ever. Career counseling is essential in navigating this uncertain work environment.
The national unemployment rate continues to decrease, falling from 8.9% in 2011 to 8.1% in 2012 and to 7.3% most recently. This still means over 12 million officially unemployed in a labor force of 155 million. Furthermore, unemployment is still up sharply from the pre-recession level of 4.6% in 2007. Younger workers are the most severely impacted with rates of 24.0% (16-19 year olds) and 13.3% (20-24 year olds). Long term unemployment is at unprecedented levels with over half of the unemployment lasting for periods of 15 weeks or longer – and most of those unemployed remain so for over 27 weeks. In addition, the labor force participation rate which measures the percentage of working age population in the official labor force is at its lowest level since 1978. While some of this is due to retirement and permanent disability, a much larger number are “discouraged” individuals who do not have jobs and have given up looking.
While employment has been recently increasing at an average of 150,000 jobs monthly, it remains well below the 250,000 jobs economists consider necessary for sustained job growth and many of the new jobs are part-time and more than half of the jobs are in low paying retail and food service sectors.
Real wages have changed little since 2000 with the average weekly earnings at $830. The latest family income figures (2012) show a substantial decline since 2007 which means the consumer spending necessary to help the economic recovery is weak.
Pay, benefits and job stress are continuing to be seen as difficult workplace issues. According to the latest Gallup Annual Work and Education poll, the workplace issues with the most worker dissatisfaction were stress, pay/benefits, and promotional opportunities. Less than a third of employees are satisfied with each of these conditions.
Current job market data for recent college graduates show them finding work most often in educational services, health care, and professional and business services. Long term benefits from educational attainment continue to be very positive with the most recent government figures showing a college graduate has an unemployment rate of 4.5% and median weekly earnings of $1,066 compared to 8.3% and $652 for a high school graduate. The figures are even more profound for those with higher or lower formal education.
Jobs in Demand
Those industries with the largest employment increases are health services, mining, automotive manufacturing, education, food services, sales and temporary work. Occupations with readily available employment opportunities are nurses, health aides, therapists, IT specialists, engineers, welders, food service and sales workers nationally, while strong regional demand exists for oil field workers, renewable energy and manufacturing technicians.
The official long term projections made by the Bureau of Labor Statistics expect the most growth and demand in nursing, aide and other health occupations, retail sales and cashiers, food service, office clerk, customer service representative, teacher, truck driver, childcare worker and certain skilled construction occupations.
Competition from foreign workers lessened to a limited extent as wages increased in Asian countries and transportation costs increased. As a result, some manufacturing jobs were started up in the U.S. while call center and other service jobs were brought back from offshore.
Technology is accelerating with more advanced computer programs, three dimensional printing and a new generation of more powerful robots. Manufacturing plants are becoming more capital intensive with assembly workers being replaced by automated processes overseen by a small number of highly skilled technicians and engineers.
Employer surveys reflected the importance of “soft” non-technical skills being as critical as occupation specific skills in hiring and retention decisions. High on the list of soft skills are communications, teamwork, interpersonal, initiative, customer service, decision making, problem solving and quantitative analysis.
With the labor market undergoing these massive changes, career counseling is more important than ever. Workers need to understand the major transformations, how their abilities and interests relate, the critical importance of employability skills, and the need for lifelong learning and adaptability. Career counselors are professionals who provide this information to clients and students in ways that help them be successful and thus improve the overall state of the workforce.
Gallup Incorporated. (November 2012). U.S. Workers Least Happy With Their Work Stress and Pay. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/poll/158723/workers-least-happy-work-stress-pay.aspx
National Association of Colleges and Employers. (May 2013). The Skills and Qualities Employers in Their Class of 2013 Recruits. Bethlehem, PA.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2012). Current Population Survey. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (August 2013). Employment Projections. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (April 2013). The Job Market for Recent College Graduates in the U.S. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
Charles Lehman manages an Albuquerque economic consulting company and is a long term board member of the New Mexico Career Development Association. He recently served as Treasurer on the NCDA Board of Trustees. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org