Yesterday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the wage estimates of the Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) survey representing May 2011. These figures came out unusually early this year. In previous years, we have had to wait until May for the figures applying to the previous May.
Although these figures are the basis for my rankings in the Best Jobs books, it’s important not to place excessive credence in their accuracy. For example, the latest figures for Makeup Artists, Theatrical and Performance, claim a 39 percent increase in earnings: from $38,130 to $53,090. This occupation numbers only about 2,000 workers nationwide, so it’s understandable that wage estimates are going to be imprecise. Most of the occupations that showed the greatest increases or decreases in estimated wages are small-workforce occupations like this one.
These small-sample problems disappear when we look at the average wage differences for all workers in all occupations. The median wage across this whole universe of workers increased by 1.8 percent. But what interested me in particular was contrasting the extremes of the distribution. The wages of the 10th and 25th percentiles increased by 1.8 and 1.0 percent; the wages of the 75th and 90th percentiles increased by 2.2 and 2.6 percent. Another way of looking at this is to compare the occupations that normally require a doctoral or professional degree (2.6 percent increase) with those that normally require less than a high school diploma (1.1 percent). What this tells me is that today’s economy is giving greater rewards to high-skill workers, while low-skill workers are experiencing wage stagnation.
Of course, those 90-versus-10 and doctoral-versus-dropout differences are trivial compared to the differences between the spectacular earnings gains of the top 1 percent of earners versus the negligible gains of the bottom 99 percent. You’ve already seen these comparisons (based on all forms of earning, not just the wage earnings that are the basis of the OES survey), so I’m not going to rehash them here.
But even if few of us can realistically aspire to breaking into the 1 percent--and the present trend toward decreased class mobility is making this harder than ever--opportunities for increasing skills exist for all of us. Yes, the cost of college tuition keeps climbing. But there are more free, high-quality courses on the Web now than ever before. An article in today’s New York Times identifies several free and low-cost online providers of courses that teach high-tech skills. For many other kinds of skills, volunteer work is a learning method that requires only time and commitment.
In today’s economy, increasing skills is a matter of survival. Those who allow their skills to stagnate are being left behind.