A dramatic surge in new jobs last month, trumpeted by the White House as vindication of its economic policies, puts the spotlight on a question now rippling through a jittery work force: Just what sorts of jobs is the much-maligned U.S. economy creating?
The answer: better ones than you may think.
Since the start of 1994, more than three-fourths of the 5.6 million new jobs were managerial and professional, according to U.S. Labor Department figures. Rather than jobs for hamburger flippers or retail clerks, statistics suggest, a growing share are in areas that tend to pay above average.
"The evidence is increasingly strong that the quality of the jobs being created in recent years [has] been good," said Joseph E. Stiglitz, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers at a recent briefing.
But wait. Is something wrong with this picture? After all, stagnant wages and the helter-skelter pace of corporate layoffs remain very real issues for vast numbers of workers.
Indeed, the surprising nature of the new jobs fuels debate over the travails of the unskilled and semi-skilled workers bypassed when employers seek out people to help run new and growing enterprises. Moreover, the new jobs offer scant comfort to the legions of middle-aged mid-level managers being discarded by big corporations.
"The occupations that pay the most are growing the fastest," said Neal H. Rosenthal, the primary author of a new U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics study on the nation's employment outlook through 2005. "But you can't forget that 40% of our jobs still can be learned in less than a month and are generally low paying."
As such, the pattern of job creation for the last two years--underscored by Friday's report that 705,000 new jobs were created in February--is a resounding signal of the rewards and punishments that face the work force in an era of changing technology and intense financial pressures.
The emerging jobs cited by analysts sometimes begin at modest salaries--as low as the mid-$20,000s a year. And many workers have yet to benefit noticeably from the recent developments in the labor market, either in terms of improved job security or rising incomes.
In fact, some economists, such as Kevin M. Murphy of the University of Chicago, express skepticism about the trend. "If we were getting more and more high-paying jobs, you'd expect pay to go up, and I don't see it" in the overall labor force, Murphy said.
But many labor-market analysts say the emerging pattern, while encouraging, still is too recent to have fully rippled through the economy--particularly in an economy where many menial jobs also are being created, albeit not quite as quickly as the high-paying positions. Also, technical jobs that pay new college graduates modestly now may provide good paths for advancement.
According to the new Bureau of Labor Statistics report, the growth trend in better-paying jobs will continue over the coming decade. Jobs in the highest-paying quarter of the labor force--a sector ranging from $586-a-week electricians to lawyers with a median weekly pay level of $1,131--are projected to account for 33.6% of the employment increases.
On the other hand, the quarter of the work force largely consisting of factory workers and other blue-collar employees is expected to provide the smallest chunk of the employment growth, 15%.
The workers landing the better-quality, newly minted jobs are often young, college-educated, technical employees, such as 23-year-old Michele Chimienti of Santa Fe Springs, Calif.
Nearly six months before graduating from USC in December 1994, with a bachelor's degree in civil engineering, Chimienti landed a paid internship with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. And as soon as the internship ended, she accepted a $27,000-a-year job with a San Diego-based environmental firm that does work for the city agency.
"I was blessed in being picked up quickly," she said. "I didn't have the disappointment of having to wait around."
Neither did her twin sister, Maria, who graduated from USC with a civil engineering degree last spring and landed a $27,500-a-year job with another environmental contractor within a few days after sending out her first resume.
For the first half of the 1990s, a key trend cited by the Labor Department was the growing portion of all new jobs coming from such high-wage industries as electrical manufacturing and communications services. Labor analysts also identified vigorous demand over the last two years in "managerial and professional" jobs in an array of categories, ranging from financial services and business consulting to information technology and restaurant management.
Our "next responsibility" is to tackle the long-term issue of wages, said Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, following last week's release of the employment numbers.
Nonetheless, maintained Reich--the administration's chief advocate of dispossessed workers--"the quality of the new jobs being created is extraordinarily good."
Union officials and other worker advocates, however, point to declining opportunities in blue-collar fields. Heavily unionized manufacturing industries--which once offered a ticket to the middle classes for semiskilled workers--have lost jobs despite the nation's overall economic expansion of the last five years.
"Middle-aged men with [a] high school education or less really lost ground," Rosenthal said.
Likewise, middle managers victimized by corporate downsizing commonly accept new jobs offering lower salaries.
In Southern California, for example, experts say engineers, accountants and managers laid off in recent years from well-paying jobs in such fields as aerospace and banking frequently take jobs at steep pay cuts in other, growing industries.
Still, in the government's figures, when someone loses a $75,000 job and accepts a new $50,000-a-year position, it is counted as one "good job" lost and one "good job" gained--no net change.
"People do find jobs, and they may be high-paying jobs, but relative to what they were being paid before, they may be worse off," said Lynn A. Karoly, a labor economist with Rand Corp. in Santa Monica.
Administration critics also like to point out that the pace of job creation has remained unusually slow in the current expansion. That pace--more than 9 million jobs--has lagged the pace of job growth in the past.
Last Friday's jobs report suggests, however, that the pace is changing. The gain in 705,000 jobs reported Friday was an astonishing performance that only has been matched twice in the last 45 years.
* DOW YO-YOS: The blue-chip index fell 96 points before recovering to eke out a 2.89-point gain. D1