“Foreman says these jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back to your hometown.”
These lyrics are from a Bruce Springsteen song that sometimes brings tears to my eyes. The song is especially poignant for me because my hometown is only a few miles from his—in fact, we were born in the same hospital, less than a year apart—and I have seen the decay of many of the places that Bruce and I grew up in.
Of course, his song is not meant to apply solely to our native part of New Jersey, but also to the many neighborhoods in decline across America as the economy has undergone drastic changes. For me, the most stark reminder of this sea change is the graph below, which appeared in an August 2012 data brief (PDF) by the National Employment Law Project. The NELP bases the graph on an analysis of statistics from the Current Population Survey. The bars for jobs lost in the recession represent the difference in employment between the first quarters of 2008 and 2010; the bars for jobs gained during the recovery, the first quarters of 2010 and 2012.
What does this graph say about your career future? Try reading the graphic with the understanding that wages are roughly commensurate with level of skill. That means that the segment of economy showing the greatest impact of the Great Recession consists of the occupations requiring a middle level of skill. In numerical terms, these occupations accounted for 60 percent of recession job losses but only 22 percent of recovery growth.
The inescapable conclusion is that you are going to need good skills to compete for the greatly diminished job opportunities at a middle level of skill—or, ideally, to secure employment in a high-wage occupation—and to avoid a career among the many low-wage workers.
One thing the graph does not show is how low the compensation is for many of the jobs that make the lower bar as long as it is. Consider America’s fastest-growing job, home health aide, which is projected to grow by 70 percent between 2010 and 2020. The median hourly wage is $9.91, which amounts to an annual wage of $20,610. Of course, many of these aides work part-time, earning a lower annual wage and probably no benefits. It’s no surprise that 40 percent of aides are on public assistance, such as Medicaid and food stamps.
I’d like to have some hope that the plight of these workers will be eased by an increase in the minimum wage—which is by no means certain to happen—but federal minimum wage and overtime laws don’t apply to them because they fall into the same category as babysitters.
Okay, so what are the high-wage occupations that will have a lot of job opportunities? I divided the range of occupations covered by BLS into three income zones with an equal number of occupations in each. I drew from those in the highest one-third to create the following table with the occupations that have the best combination of job growth and average annual openings, as projected by the BLS. The annual earnings are estimates for May 2011; the estimate for Physicians and Surgeons is almost certainly too low, because it is an average of all specializations, some of which have earnings above the maximum that BLS reports.
At the end of "My Hometown," the song's narrator sings about a
conversation with his wife about maybe packing up and moving south. But
the song's ending leaves this question unresolved. It's true that some
parts of the nation (some in the Sunbelt, but don't forget North Dakota)
have lower unemployment than others. Nevertheless, I suggest that for
most people, the way to cope with this economy is to move your skills