It’s not just the number of jobs. That’s what they are – and what they pay

Campaigning for re-election to the presidency in 1996, Bill Clinton liked to brag about how many jobs the US economy had generated during his four years in office. The story goes that he told a constituent, “I created over 10 million jobs. “I’m aware of that,” the man replied. “I have three.”

This story may be apocryphal, but it tells us something about the whole business of measuring economic health by counting the number of new jobs each month. Many of these jobs don’t pay enough to provide decent support for a family. That’s why millions of Americans have to double or triple.

Yet the total number is the one that most media focuses on. In July, we were told by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the economy added 528,000 jobs, a high number that was treated as good news by pundits across the country. But where exactly in the economy were these jobs located? Do we have all the nurses we need? What’s the long-term picture for bartenders and restaurant cooks? It is not always easy to find out. Far more important than the raw numbers for any given month is the broader picture of how COVID-19 has changed the nature of American employment over the two and a half years of its prevalence.


Specialists know this. “We get economic data that fluctuates quite rapidly,” economist Gregory Daco told a reporter recently, “and it’s very difficult to get a specific reason for where the economy is at any given time.” The Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond made a stark statement about the long-term situation last April. A document released by the bank said “the pandemic has permanently reduced participation in the economy.”

IN FACT, SOME LONG-TERM EVIDENCE is there to be examined. I chose to look for it in just one state – Wisconsin – both because it is fairly typical in its employment patterns and because it has two outstanding economic research institutes, the Wisconsin Policy Forum and the Lubar Center for Public Policy at Marquette University.

Wisconsin’s finest jobs data brings us right to the end of 2021, but it’s packed with clues about how a state’s job situation has changed in the first 20 months of the pandemic. pandemic. Some of them have changed again this year, of course, and others for the better. But it is crucial to know how much the coronavirus has affected life in a state for an extended period.

At the start of 2022, the overall picture in Wisconsin was pretty bright. The total number of jobs in the state was down only 2.4% from the last few months before the virus, and the statewide unemployment rate hovered slightly above 3%, below the rate for the whole country.

But what mattered most was the type of job you chose to pursue. Wisconsin had something of a housing boom in 2021, and if you worked in construction, the jobs were plentiful. The same was true if you worked in finance or insurance, job categories that benefited from the ease with which people could work from home. The number of warehousing jobs was up, as were jobs for couriers and messengers. What isn’t mentioned often enough is that you can’t make a lot of money at any of these jobs – it’s the kind of job the Three Job Man told President Clinton in 1996 .

The jobs in Wisconsin that suffered the most during the pandemic were those in entertainment and gambling, food and beverage. In the first month of the pandemic alone, food and beverage jobs in the state fell 47%. It was a huge loss to society, as food and beverage is the second largest job category in the state, after education. This sector rebounded slowly in 2021, but at the start of this year it was still down nearly 10% from its pre-pandemic level.

The health numbers tell an interesting story. This category held steady for most of 2020, then fell sharply in 2021. At the end of the year, there were fewer nursing jobs in Wisconsin than at any time since 2003. Wasn’t because of a lack of opportunity: The demand for nurses was higher than ever, especially among the elderly. But the estate has suffered greatly from exhaustion due to COVID-19 and an increase in early retirements.

THE LUBAR CENTER HAS PROVIDED SOME DETAILS last month on just one county in Wisconsin — Milwaukee County, the state’s most populous. Remarkably, the number of business establishments in the county has increased during the pandemic. But the number of employees has decreased. This was especially true when it came to restaurants. There are more today than in 2019: 6% more, at the beginning of this year. But that’s largely because of an increase in food trucks and catering. Sit-down restaurants did not rebound at all. Neither have taverns. In fact, jobs in the hospitality and recreation industry in Milwaukee County are down 31% in 2020 alone. Restaurant contractors lost half their jobs in 2020, and only half their jobs. of them returned in 2021.

Much the same situation prevailed in day care centres. The number of businesses has increased during the pandemic, but the number of jobs has decreased. The Lubar Center concluded that most new vendors are small startups that don’t employ many people.

Something like this has been true throughout the local economy. “There are more commercial establishments today than two years ago,” Marquette analysts concluded. But “at the beginning of this year, almost all major sectors of the local economy had fewer employees in total than before the start of the pandemic”.

There are exceptions. Jobs are up in Milwaukee County in trucking, home improvement, drywall installation and landscaping. And it’s probably safe to assume that salaries are higher than they used to be in these areas. But for the most part, these jobs don’t pay as well as the jobs they replaced. If you are a drywall tradesman, some landscaping to the side may be required.

This is consistent with data for the nation as a whole as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. July’s encouraging monthly data masked a larger two-year decline. Non-farm payrolls fell by more than half a million jobs compared to February 2020, just before the virus hit. Health sector jobs, particularly nursing jobs, were up in July but well below the start of 2020. As in Wisconsin, this was not due to a lack of demand but to voluntary departures . In manufacturing, jobs are up at least slightly in plastics, rubber, tobacco and leather. But the average number of hours worked in the manufacturing sector as a whole fell slightly.

THE MOST INTRIGUING NEWS FROM THE BLS, however, is the agency’s projection of which jobs will increase by 2030 and which will decrease. In eight years, the agency predicts, we will need fewer word processors and typists, parking attendants, watch and clock repairers, bank tellers, floral designers and door-to-door salespeople. Most of this makes some sense. Parking enforcement is increasingly automated, watches are replaced rather than repaired, and few of us want to open a door-to-door sales pitch. In general, the jobs that are disappearing are in the low-wage sectors of the economy, with the notable exception of nuclear reactor operators, a well-paid profession that appears to be in decline.

Equally interesting is the list of occupations expected to increase by 2030. The BLS believes we will see more wind turbine technicians, nurse practitioners, exercise trainers and exercise trainers. ‘animals.

But some projections are, to say the least, counter-intuitive. The BLS estimates that by 2030, the fastest growing job category of all will be film projectionists. I wish they had explained it. Americans go to the cinema less than a few years ago, and in any case the projectors themselves are gradually being rendered obsolete by digital technology. There must be a reason, but I can’t think of it.

Perhaps the clearest result of the BLS projection is evidence that rising jobs will almost all be in relatively lower-paying occupations. All but three of the 20 fastest growing jobs have median salaries below $100,000 a year. As of last year, film projectionists averaged less than $30,000 a year. There’s good news for restaurant cooks: Their numbers are expected to increase by 49% by 2030. But it’s not good news: As of last year, cooks had a median salary of $30,010 .

If much of this is confusing, I share your confusion. But the data serves to reinforce the most important point: we all want the economy to keep creating jobs. But to make sense of the whole picture, we need to pay attention to where jobs are located and what they pay. If you need two or three of them to make ends meet, the sheer number isn’t much to tell.


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