Milwaukee — In a post-recession world where many once-familiar occupations continue to automate, move offshore or disappear outright, one of the most basic questions remains:

Who’s hiring?

It turns out the vast preponderance of job openings these days consists of low-skill, hourly wage work with high turnover.

The current slate of “help wanted” ads overwhelmingly involves cashiers, waitresses and waiters, personal care aides, janitors, those who stock store shelves, and the likes of Hardee’s and Taco Bell.

Of the top 10 “Occupations with the Most Openings,” nine fall into government-designated wage categories of “very low” and “low,” according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor.

The proliferation of bottom-rung openings casts a light on an epidemic transformation within the national economy, one that has been accompanied by a long-term contraction of middle-skill occupations that often pay family-supporting wages.

“Workers in many types of middle-rank positions — such as skilled production-line workers and people in clerical or administrative jobs — have had to migrate into jobs as food-service workers, home health-care aides, child-care employees and security guards,” according to a study by David Autor, economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Autor describes this concentration of Americans into low-skill jobs as the “polarization” of the U.S. labor market.

High-skill, high-pay workers, who are essential in a tech-driven economy, have a growing share of opportunities, his research shows. In a trend that gathered pace in the 1980s and ’90s, however, the low end of the economy has broadened outward like a pyramid with a disproportionately wide base.

“This is not an overall improvement in job quality,” Autor said. “The problem with many of these jobs is they require fairly generic skill sets, which means workers have limited negotiating power and are fairly interchangeable. These are not, in general, attractive jobs.”

The statistical snapshots of the most in-demand jobs, however, aren’t well known. Surprisingly few experts study the perennially practical question of where actual jobs can be found, particularly compared with the armies of analysts who react furiously to every backward-looking unemployment index.

The Labor Department’s rankings of job openings don’t attract much attention because the agency doesn’t include them in its Bureau of Labor Statistics database, where postings often trigger wild swings in world stock markets. Instead, the Labor Department hosts it in-demand jobs on a website called CareerOneStop.

What’s remarkable about the rankings is how deeply the low-wage sector — once seen as temporary and transitional — has entrenched itself in the world of work.

According to the Labor Department, the No. 1 employment opportunity in the U.S. is for retail salespeople. Typical retail work requires “less than high school” education.

Retail jobs do not always pay well, but there are plenty of them: Nearly 200,000 open up on average each year in the U.S.

Fast-food workers are the second most in-demand occupation. Coming in third are cashiers. The No. 4 employment opportunity is for waiters and waitresses.

For the U.S. and Wisconsin, the most abundant job openings overlap almost identically. Not until the No. 5 rank do the top 10 openings include a family-supporting occupation: registered nurses.

No matter how one dissects the data, the results are similar. Idaho-based Economic Modeling Specialists International, which also creates rankings of in-demand jobs, updates its database every quarter using more than 90 sources. Its findings virtually match those of the Labor Department regarding the most in-demand occupations: fast food, retail sales, cashiers, waiters and waitresses, and customer service representatives.

The data confirm that the nation has undergone a wholesale transformation. According to other Labor Department figures, manufacturing was the nation’s largest employment sector until the turn of the millennium, often with wages sufficient to pay for college tuition and retirement.

Since 2000, however, three largely consumer-driven sectors successively have displaced manufacturing as the nation’s largest employers: retailers; hospitality, which includes restaurants and hotels; and a combined sector called health care and social services. The United States has morphed from a nation that made things into a nation that consumes them, making the strip mall a new symbol of the American economy.

MIT’s Autor traces the turning point back to 1980: The share of U.S. labor hours in the low-end service sector was flat or declining in the three decades before 1980, but it increased 30 percent from 1980 to 2005.

“That growth has not been enough to accommodate all the displaced workers from other industries, but it clearly is where some job-seekers have wound up,” Autor concluded in one of his studies. As an example, he cites machine operators and assemblers, whose share of U.S. working hours fall by more than half — from 9.9 percent in 1980 to 4.6 percent in 2005.

The profusion of low-wage jobs raises the question of the sort of existence they support.

“Two parents in one of those low or very low occupations, and both working full time, won’t make it,” said Elise Gould, chief labor economist at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

What’s more, many working households with low-end jobs would be eligible for some form of government assistance, such as food stamps or Medicaid, said Thomas Corbett, scientist emeritus at the Institute for Research on Poverty in Madison, Wisconsin. “Many of these jobs will hover around the poverty line for small families,” Corbett said.

The existence of so-called McJobs, of course, is decades old. They’ve been in the news lately with strikes by fast-food workers that began last year.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which to many symbolizes the low-end sector, this year announced plans to raise hourly wages after years of public pressure and criticism. The firm hiked its starting hourly rate to at least $9, so it’s at least $1.75 above federal minimum wage. In February 2016, it moves to at least $10 an hour. Nationally, half a million Wal-Mart employees will get raises, according to a spokesman.

At the Labor Department, officials have developed complex models to predict annual demand for occupations. The figures on CareerOneStop are updated every two years, meaning the estimates do not reflect an exact real-time tally of openings. To create its rankings, the Labor Department culls data from each state as well as the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The site also ranks the fastest growing occupations. Those show high growth, but often off a low base. The nation’s leading high-growth occupation is called “industrial-organizational psychologist,” which requires a master’s degree and pays $80,300 a year. Those openings are projected to grow over 50 percent by 2022, albeit with only 1,600 openings per year nationally.

The No. 2 and No. 3 fastest-growing occupations are personal care aides ($20,100 a year), followed by home health aides ($21,000 a year).

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