New BLS Occupation Data

Every two years the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics produces a new set of national employment projections for 750 different occupations organized into 22 major groups. They also produce a broad set of supporting materials, from academic and technical analyses for researchers to career guidance materials for students and education planners. The projections data were released in February, and the final resource, a career guide for students and educators called the Occupational Outlook Handbook, was released last week.

For each occupation, the BLS reports:

  • 2010 estimated employment,
  • 2020 projected employment,
  • Percent change 2010-2020,
  • Projected job openings resulting from the creation of new jobs,
  • Projected job openings created by the need to replace those who retire or leave an occupation for other reasons,
  • Percent self-employed, and
  • Median annual wages 2010.

Like all projections, these are based on certain fundamental assumptions. In this case, the most important assumption is that over the next decade, the U.S. economy will recover from the deep shock of the 2007-09 recession and return to something approaching full employment by 2020.  But of course, this probability is not a certainty.

Assuming that the economy overall will return to full employment does not mean that all occupations are expected to return to pre-recession levels. A few occupational groups, including Healthcare, Computer & Mathematical, and Protective Service occupations, continued to grow throughout the recession and are projected to keep growing through 2020. Others experienced huge job losses. Some of these, including Sales and Buildings and Grounds maintenance occupations, are expected to exceed their pre-recession employment levels by 2020; but others are not. Production,  Farming, and Construction occupations are not expected to reach 2006 employment levels by 2020.

Along with the employment projections, the BLS assigns an education and training classification to each occupation. In response to criticisms published in the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce report, Help Wanted, the BLS radically revised their method for assigning education requirements to occupations. Help Wanted argued first that the education and training categories used by the BLS were confusing and difficult to use, and second that they radically underestimated the demand for postsecondary education.

I think that the BLS has done a good job of dealing with the problem of confusion. For each occupation, they now assign three distinct types of education requirements: typical degree level required for entry, needed work experience, and typical on-the-job training needed to attain competency. Previously, they tried to merge education, work experience, and on-the-job training requirements all into one largely incomprehensible classification. However, I don’t think they have addressed the problem of underestimating education demand.

The key problem, as Help Wanted pointed out, is that it’s not helpful  to assign a single degree level requirement to each occupation. With the exception of a few highly regulated occupations, such as physicians, most occupations employ people with a range of degrees. Sometimes this wide range results from changing education standards over time, so that older workers have been grandfathered into occupations that now have much higher degree requirements for new entrants. For example, about one quarter of orthotists and prosthetists have a high school diploma or less, but certification in this field today requires a bachelor’s degree or higher.

At other times, however, the degree range is wide because employers have very different requirements for the same occupation. The majority of childcare workers, for example, have a high school diploma or less, but ten percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher. These higher degrees probably don’t foreshadow rising education requirements for the entire occupation, but instead indicate the standards held to by a small group of parents who seek out this kind of care for their children. An even wider divergence of educational attainment is seen in customer service representatives, 35 percent of whom have just a high school diploma or less while 22 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher. In this case, representatives with varying education levels are usually doing very different versions of the same occupation—for example, handling investment questions for brokerage firms vs. dealing with product inquiries at the online shoe store.

By having to assign a single degree requirement to each occupation, the BLS necessarily misses out on the subtleties of both occupational change and diversity within occupations. Consequently, they often seem to underrepresent the amount of education that today’s students need in order to  have a good chance of breaking in to individual occupations. They also seem to underrepresent the total number of workers with higher education that our school and college systems will need to provide. Comparing the BLS “typical education needed for entry into an occupation” with actual current educational attainment data makes it appear that the United States population is radically over educated, having half the number of high school graduates and dropouts that we need and far too many people with college degrees. There are many current debates about just what what kind of education is needed today, but no one is arguing that we need less postsecondary education than we currently have.

2010 Educational Attainment and Typical Education Needed for Occupation Entry

Over the last couple of months I have been writing about the new BLS projections for Virginia’s Career and Technical Education teachers and administrators and matching the occupations tracked by the BLS to the “career clusters” that CTE uses for student guidance and to organize their programs. You can read my posts on career cluster employment on the CTE Trailblazers blog.

Occupation Projection Resources

Employment Projections Home Page

For Students, Parents and Educators:

For Researchers:

Projections Special Issue, Monthly Labor Review January 2012

Employment projections through the lens of education and trainingMonthly Labor Review April 2012