The Great Job Divide

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New figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show growth of low-wage jobs

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This week the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its Occupational Employment and Wages Statistics for 2010, which provides employment and wage estimates for 22 major occupational groups and nearly 800 occupations. The accompanying press release notes that retail salespersons and cashiers were the occupations with the highest employment, representing almost 6% of the US workforce. "In addition to retail salespersons and cashiers," the summary continues, "the largest occupations included general office clerks; combined food preparation and serving workers, including fast food; registered nurses; and waiters and waitresses."

Those occupations, as the BLS summary blandly puts it, are "relatively low paying. Only registered nurses received an average wage that was above the US mean of $21.35 per hour ($44,410 annually). "Combined food preparation and serving workers, cashiers, and waiters and waitresses were the three lowest paying of the 10 largest occupations, and also among the lowest-paying occupations overall." The average wage for fast food preparers, cooks, and servers is less than $9.00 an hour.

As the recovery creaks along there are more and more jobs to be had, but most of them don't provide a future or even a living wage. The WSJ's Real Time Economics blog cut directly to the chase: "The economy is creating more low-paying jobs and more high-paying jobs (that require higher education) and leaving fewer opportunities for the traditional American middle class."

As I have written before, the reality is that more than 60 million people, or about 45 percent of the work-force, are already toiling in low-wage service jobs, which will remain low-wage jobs even if and when the economy expands. A successful jobs strategy must focus centrally on upgrading the content and improving the wages of this entire job category. That is what happened a century ago in the manufacturing sector--and it is what needs to happen in the service sector today.

Image: Nacho Doce/Reuters

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Richard Florida is Co-founder and Editor at Large of CityLab.com and Senior Editor at The Atlantic. He is director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto and Global Research Professor at NYU. More

Florida is author of The Rise of the Creative ClassWho's Your City?, and The Great Reset. He's also the founder of the Creative Class Group, and a list of his current clients can be found here
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