Good jobs: statistics and realities

October 19, 1994

It's not unusual for perception and reality to differ. But if statistics can be accepted as reality (and that's not always a given), there is some good news on the job creation front. Yes, there are plenty of minimum-wage, dead-end, burger-flipping jobs out there. But statistics tell a brighter story.

Contrary to public perceptions -- and to a lot of political rhetoric -- most of the 5.5 million new jobs created during the past two-and-a-half years have come in occupations that pay more, not less, than the nation's average wage of about $15.50 an hour. So far in 1994, almost three-quarters of the 2.5 million new jobs created have been for managers or professionals. Ironically, most of those jobs are coming in the service industry, which is often accused of loading the economy with low-wage jobs, rather than promising careers that can support a comfortable measure of affluence.

Even so, the news is not entirely rosy. The hourly pay of lower-paid workers continues to slip. Median household income has been stagnant and, measured in constant dollars, personal income per capita has been falling.

The good jobs, it seems, are there for those who are trained and capable of taking advantage of them. All those sermons to young people about staying in school are right. It's the educated workers who are best prepared to hold the economy's good new jobs. Less skilled employees can look forward to stagnant or falling wages and the accompanying insecurities and uncertainties.

The fact that so many new jobs are in service-related industries shouldn't really come as a surprise. "Service" covers a wide spectrum -- not just clerking at a fast-food outlet, but also jobs in financial services or advertising or health care. Many service industries are adding managers and professionals, but these workers aren't functioning as just another layer of bureaucracy. Rather, the new growth companies are depending on managers who are eager and able to get things done themselves, not just generate reports for higher-ups.

Despite the good news, the question lingers: Why the sour mood that suggests things are getting worse, not better? We suspect that is because of the widening gap between lower-paid and higher-income workers, which does present troubling problems for the well-being of millions of American families. There's another factor as well. The new, good-paying jobs are fundamentally different from the middle-level sinecures that seemed plentiful in an earlier era. Those comfortable days, when many workers could expect to spend their entire careers with one employer, are gone. The workers who are thriving now are those who can adapt and produce, year after year.

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