The story behind how Detroit's grand prix raced back downtown

Richer U.S. households fueling a hot job sector: ‘wealth work’

Christopher Rugaber
Associated Press
Personal shopper and stylist Kat Yeh looks at shoes for a client in San Francisco.

Washington – Ken McNamee has an upfront view of the river of wealth cascading through Seattle these days.

A private chef, McNamee prospects for clients at the tony country club where he spends part of his week preparing luxe meals. The parking lot is dotted with Ferraris and Porsches. The members include Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos.

McNamee has cooked in exclusive clubs around the world. Yet he’s sometimes overwhelmed by the scale of riches around Seattle. On a visit to a potential client at a home on Lake Washington, not far from Gates’ house, McNamee encountered an indoor pool, two kitchens, a dumbwaiter and a trove of artwork.

“That,” he said, “was one of the only times I’ve been awed.”

A rising number of American workers may be feeling nearly as dazzled on the job. One of the fastest-growing job categories of the past decade has been in what David Autor, an economics professor at MIT, calls “wealth work”: Catering to the whims and desires of affluent households.

The trend has coincided with the longest U.S. expansion on record, which surpassed the decade mark this month. That streak of growth – and the surging stock market gains that accompanied it – has left the richest households with a greater proportion of America’s wealth than before the Great Recession began in 2007. By contrast, just 2% of the increased wealth has gone to the bottom half of the population.

Most “wealth work” jobs aren’t quite as glamorous as McNamee’s. But they’re growing fast.

The number of massage therapist jobs has more than doubled in the past decade. So have manicurists and pedicurists. The number of private chefs, like McNamee, has quintupled. A category that mostly consists of jobs walking and grooming dogs is up 60%. You can now even get a college degree in “canine training and management .”

These jobs have grown faster than government economists had forecast before the Great Recession. Though such positions have long been part of the U.S. workforce, Autor expects them to become a more substantial source of jobs and income in coming years, especially in cities.

Yet economists note that most so-called wealth jobs don’t benefit workers or the economy as much as traditional employment does. Most wealth workers are self-employed and so lack employer-provided health insurance, retirement plans and other benefits. They often earn relatively low wages, and their incomes tend to fluctuate depending on how many clients they have. Nor do they have many opportunities to learn new skills, undergo advanced training or move up a career ladder.

For that reason, the increased prevalence of wealth jobs – and of contractors and gig workers like Uber drivers – may be a cautionary sign for an economy that appears relatively healthy by most measures.

“They contribute to this jittery, anxious moment,” said Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “It’s a boom that also feels precarious.”

Still, wealth workers, many of them squeezed out of previous jobs, have often had little choice. As middle-skill positions have been lost to automation or offshoring, some who lost those jobs have turned to wealth occupations instead.

Private chef Ken McNamee has cooked in exclusive clubs around the world, yet he's sometimes overwhelmed by the scale of wealth around Seattle.

In data analyzed exclusively for The Associated Press, Muro calculates that there were 3.2 million wealth worker jobs in 2017, up from 2.8 million in 2010. They have grown faster than such traditional occupations as sales, education, manufacturing and office administrative work.

Muro’s figures for wealth workers include maids and housekeepers, landscapers, personal trainers and skincare specialists (think facials). Their pay averaged about $36,000 in 2017, far below the average for all occupations of $51,000.

At the same time, wealth work has been a crucial source of jobs and income, particularly for those without college degrees, Autor and Anna Salomons of Utrecht University wrote in a paper earlier this year.

And in an era that has witnessed a steady loss of manufacturing jobs, wealth positions hold one major distinct advantage: Because these jobs require personal interaction, they are immune to the threat of automation and outsourcing.

“You can’t have someone spotting you on a weight bench from China,” said Lucas Puente, formerly the chief economist at Thumbtack, an online small business marketplace.

Yet jobs that require interpersonal skills, like nursing, tend to be disproportionately held by women. Muro calculates that about 60% of wealth workers are women, compared with about half of all workers. That means that men aren’t fully participating in a sector with rapid job growth.

“Men historically have been much less excited to take jobs that are mostly customer service,” Autor said.

They have also been more reluctant to take lower-paying positions. But that could change, Autor noted, if this sector is where job opportunities will increasingly exist. Men have started to slowly take more jobs as flight attendants and nurses, he added.

Economists expect the number of wealth occupations to keep growing. As more two-income professional families congregate in wealthier, more congested cities with sometimes long commutes to work, they will want help from people who can cook or clean or walk their dogs for them.

The McKinsey Global Institute projects that massage therapist jobs will surge 88% by 2030. Dietitians and nutritionists are forecast to jump by about half. Landscape architect jobs will increase by a third, the institute projects.

The main driver of growth in these jobs is the expansion of the upper-middle class. Nearly 8% of U.S. households earned $200,000 a year or more in 2017, according to the Census Bureau . That figure is up from just below 6% in 2007, adjusted for inflation, when the recession began.

And since the recession ended in 2009, the top 30% of U.S. households by income have boosted their wealth by about one-fifth, in inflation-adjusted dollars, according to data from the Federal Reserve. The bottom 70%, by contrast, are still poorer than they were in 2007.

Sue Forrest, 58, has hired three personal chefs in the past several years to cater parties and visit her house to cook a week’s worth of meals that are then frozen and reheated. Forrest works as a graphic designer from her home in Durham, North Carolina. Her husband, George, is a consultant for the utility industry.

“Business has continued to thrive and grow,” she said, making it affordable for her family to pay a chef.

Forrest paid McNamee when he lived in the area, before he and his wife, Arika, moved to Seattle. She has encouraged friends to consider hiring a chef, though some of them have said they consider it extravagant. Not Forrest. She regards a personal chef as a time-saver.

Personal chef Melissa Furano Winstead bakes a nectarine galette for a client in San Francisco.

“It’s the same reason I have someone come and clean my house,” she said. “I’m going to spend that time working, and I can make three or four times what I am paying.”

Wealth workers are more common in large metro areas, where their clients congregate. As such, they are likely contributing to the widening economic divides between the most vibrant big cities and smaller towns and rural areas. Wealth occupations are 1½ times more likely to exist in the 20 richest metro areas than in other large cities, Muro calculates. Only 15% are in small towns or rural areas.

Like many wealth workers, Sabrina Gallon, 58, a personal chef and caterer in Atlanta, was laid off from a more traditional corporate job before deciding in 2014 to follow her longtime dream of becoming a chef. She had directed operations at a small pharmaceutical marketing firm. After her layoff, she couldn’t find a similar position.

Gallon earns less now than in her previous job, and the work is harder than she expected. There is a lot of physical exertion – lifting and carrying cooking equipment for catering events. Trying to coordinate menus for multiple clients who have ordered a week’s worth of meals, so she can buy in bulk, is challenging, too.

“The service industry is hard work, and that is one thing I was not aware of when I started,” Gallon said.

Still, she values the greater freedom she now has.

“I’m no longer at the mercy of a boss or tied to rules I had no input in creating,” she said. “I live comfortably and am able to make ends meet.”

One thing that could slow the growth of these jobs, of course, would be another recession. A stock market plunge would shrink the wealth of affluent Americans, which would likely lead them to cut back on spending.

Still, higher-income households typically weather recessions better than others, Muro notes. If that trend holds true, it could sustain demand for wealth work jobs. Many wealth occupations held steady or even grew through the Great Recession.

If a recession were to cause widespread layoffs, Muro said, it could potentially push more workers into these fields. The increased competition could inevitably erode their income.

Nicholas Smith, a personal trainer in San Francisco, says he tries to keep his prices affordable for upper-income workers, rather than relying on the uber-wealthy, as a hedge against a downturn. Still, he harbors no illusions.

“I know I’m a luxury,” Smith said. “If the economy were to fall, I’d be one of the first things to go most likely.”