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It’s Not Just the Number of Jobs. It’s What They Are — and What They Pay

The economy keeps adding them by the hundreds of thousands. But those big numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Housing construction in Mauston, Wis.
Housing construction in Mauston, Wisconsin.
Campaigning for re-election as president in 1996, Bill Clinton liked to boast about the number of jobs the U.S. economy had generated during his four years in office. The story goes that he told one voter, “I’ve created more than 10 million jobs.” “I’m aware of that,” the man replied. “I’ve got three of them.”

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

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

Specialists know this. “We’re getting economic data that is fluctuating quite rapidly,” economist Gregory Daco told a reporter recently, “and it’s very hard to get a precise reason for where the economy is at any point in time.” The Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond made a blunt statement of the long-term situation this past April. A paper issued by the bank declared that “the pandemic has permanently reduced participation in the economy.”

IN FACT, SOME LONG-TERM EVIDENCE is out there to be examined. I chose to look for it in a single state — Wisconsin — both because it is fairly typical in its employment patterns and because it is blessed with two outstanding economic research institutions, the Wisconsin Policy Forum and the Lubar Center for Public Policy at Marquette University.

The most finely grained Wisconsin jobs data takes us just to the end of 2021, but it is packed with clues to how one state’s employment situation changed in the first 20 months of the pandemic. Some of it has changed again this year, of course, and some for the better. But it’s crucial to know just how the coronavirus affected life in one state for a sustained period of time.

As 2022 began, the overall picture in Wisconsin was fairly bright. The total number of jobs in the state was down just 2.4 percent from the last pre-virus months, and the statewide unemployment rate hovered slightly above 3 percent, below the rate for the country as a whole.

But what mattered most was the sort of employment you chose to pursue. Wisconsin experienced something of a real-estate boom in 2021, and if you worked in construction, 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 jobs in warehousing was way up, as were jobs for couriers and messengers. What doesn’t get mentioned often enough is that you can’t make much money at any of those jobs — they are the sort of work that the three-job man told President Clinton about in 1996.

The jobs in Wisconsin that suffered most during the pandemic were those in amusements and gambling, food and drink. In the first month of the pandemic alone, food and drink jobs in the state cratered by an astonishing 47 percent. That was a huge societal loss, because food and drink is the second-largest job category in the state, trailing only education. That sector rebounded slowly in 2021, but as this year began, it was still down by nearly 10 percent from its pre-pandemic level.

The health-care numbers tell an interesting story. That category held its own for most of 2020, then dropped sharply in 2021. As the year ended, there were fewer nursing jobs in Wisconsin than at any time since 2003. This wasn’t because of a lack of opportunities: Demand for nurses was as high as ever, especially among the elderly. But the field suffered badly from COVID-19 burnout and a surge in early retirements.

THE LUBAR CENTER PROVIDED SOME DETAIL last month about a single Wisconsin county — Milwaukee County, the most populous in the state. Remarkably, the number of business establishments in the county rose during the pandemic. But the number of employees declined. This was especially true when it came to restaurants. There are more of them now than there were in 2019: 6 percent more, as of early this year. But that’s in large part because of a surge in food trucks and catering. Sit-down restaurants haven’t bounced back at all. Neither have taverns. In fact, jobs in the hospitality and the leisure sector in Milwaukee County declined 31 percent in 2020 alone. Food-service contractors lost half their jobs in 2020, and only half of those came back in 2021.

Roughly the same situation prevailed in child care. The number of businesses went up during the pandemic, but the number of jobs went down. The Lubar Center concluded that most of the new providers are small startups that don’t employ many people.

Something like this has been true all across the local economy. “There are more business establishments today than there were two years ago,” Marquette analysts concluded. But “at the start of this year, nearly every major sector of the local economy had fewer total employees than before the pandemic began.”

There are exceptions. Jobs are up in Milwaukee County in trucking, home remodeling, drywall installation and landscaping. And it’s probably safe to assume that wages are higher than they previously were in those fields. But for the most part, those jobs don’t pay as well as the jobs they have replaced. If you’re a drywall laborer, it might be necessary to do some landscaping on the side.

This is consistent with data for the nation as a whole as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The encouraging monthly stats from July masked a larger two-year decline. Non-farm employment was down by more than half a million jobs from February 2020, just before the virus hit. Health-care jobs, especially nursing jobs, were up in July but far below early 2020. As in Wisconsin, this wasn’t due to any lack of demand but to voluntary departures. When it comes to manufacturing, jobs are growing at least slightly in plastics, rubber, tobacco and leather. But the average number of hours worked in the manufacturing sector overall has been falling slightly.

THE MOST INTRIGUING NEWS FROM THE BLS, however, is the agency’s projection of which jobs will increase by the year 2030 and which ones will decline. Eight years from now, the agency predicts, we will have less need for word processors and typists, parking enforcement monitors, watch and clock repairers, bank tellers, floral designers, and door-to-door salespeople. Most of that makes a certain amount of sense. Parking enforcement is increasingly automated, watches are replaced rather than repaired, and few of us want to open up for a door-to-door sales pitch. In general, the disappearing jobs are in low-wage sectors of the economy — with the notable exception of nuclear reactor operators, a handsomely paid occupation that appears to be on the way down.

What’s equally interesting is the list of occupations projected to grow by 2030. The BLS believes we will see more wind turbine technicians, nurse practitioners, exercise trainers and animal caretakers.

But some of the projections are, to say the least, counterintuitive. The BLS believes that between now and 2030, the fastest-growing job category of all will be motion picture projectionists. I wish they had explained this. Americans aren’t going out to the movies as much as they did a few years ago, and in any case the projectors themselves are gradually being made obsolete by digital technology. There must be a reason, but I just can’t conjure it up.

Perhaps the clearest takeaway from the BLS projection is the evidence that the rising jobs will almost all be in relatively lower-wage occupations. All but three of the 20 fastest-growing jobs have median salaries below $100,000 a year. As of last year, movie projectionists were averaging less than $30,000 annually. There’s some good news for restaurant cooks: Their numbers are expected to grow a healthy 49 percent by 2030. But it’s not great 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 does serve to reinforce the most important point: We all want the economy to keep growing jobs. But to make sense of the whole picture, we need to pay attention to where the jobs are and what they are paying. If you need two or three of them to make ends meet, the big number isn’t much to write home about.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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