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What’s the Point of Looking at the Top 10 Highest Growth Occupations?

June 23, 2011 by Joshua Wright

By Josh Stevenson

This post contains several top 10 lists looking at high growth occupations, but it also contains some serious questions about how worthwhile top 10 lists are.

The big, underlying question is: “How accurate a picture of our economy does a top 10 list give us?”

Specialists hate simplification. We’re data specialists, so when people don’t understand exactly how a given piece of data works, we get nervous. However, specialists can also be kind of terrible at communicating. Effective communication usually requires simplification.

Top 10 lists are extremely simple aggregations of data. That makes them satisfying. You look at a bit of data, you feel like you have a sense of what’s happening. This is where specialists get worried.

A specialist tends to say things like, “I could just tell you who won, but if you really want to understand the Civil War, you have to march around Gettysburg in July in a wool uniform.”

The rest of the population feels like getting that deep into the subject would be going overboard.

But, for a labor market data geek, looking at a top 10 list on occupations can feel a little like reading the Wikipedia page on the Civil War. We feel like you’re missing the full resonance of the data.

But sometimes the data says so little that it almost feels invisible, even to non-geeks.

Take this list, for example:

SOC CodeDescription2010 Jobs2011 JobsChange2011 Median Hourly WageEducation Level
41-2031Retail salespersons4,502,2154,548,01345,798$9.64Short-term on-the-job training
35-3021Combined food preparation and serving workers, including fast food2,669,5962,709,51239,916$8.42Short-term on-the-job training
39-9011Child care workers2,133,2032,171,48338,280$7.96Short-term on-the-job training
39-9021Personal and home care aides1,050,0271,088,02938,002$8.80Short-term on-the-job training
37-2012Maids and housekeeping cleaners1,805,9951,843,57937,584$8.56Short-term on-the-job training
31-1011Home health aides1,106,5991,143,98337,384$9.81Short-term on-the-job training
29-1111Registered nurses2,606,6792,639,75933,080$30.39Associate's degree
53-3032Truck drivers, heavy and tractor-trailer1,934,8991,966,60931,710$18.67Moderate-term on-the-job training
51-2092Team assemblers991,0141,018,38727,373$12.96Moderate-term on-the-job training
11-9199Managers, all other2,086,9942,113,33126,337$20.91Work experience in a related field
EMSI Complete Employment - 2011.2

That’s a list of the 10 occupations showing the most net growth from 2010 to 2011. But you’ll notice that it’s kind of a boring list. Retail salespersons, food prep workers, home health aides, are all perennials on lists of high growth occupations. And is anyone surprised to find registered nurses on the list? See what we mean by invisible?

However, if we look close sometimes there’s still some interest in a list like this.

The one occupation on the list that’s kind of interesting is growth in team assemblers. They’re a major manufacturing occupation, they’ve seen steady decline since 2006, and now they’re ninth on a list of the top ten fastest growing jobs.

The other interesting aspect of that list is that all of the occupations are low on the education scale, and offer lower wages. Registered nurses stand out when compared with the adjacent occupations, requiring an Associate’s degree and offering significantly higher wages.

The point is, even though the list is simple we can draw something interesting out of it if we look hard enough.

But, let’s do some work with this list to get something a little more striking. How about a list that cuts out some of the obvious, basic stuff? First of all, let’s lose the lower wage jobs. The median occupational wage for the nation is $18/hour. We’ll cut a little bit under that and lose everything under $17/hour.

Higher wage jobs aren’t as likely to show up on a list of high growth, but we’ll go ahead and cut anything greater than $39/hour, to keep things even. We’re cutting out lower-wage occupations on the bottom, and higher-wage outliers on top.

Okay. Now, instead of just pulling back a top 10 list using these wage parameters, we’re going to look at two top 10 lists. They’re both limited by those wage filters. However, we’re also going to show a little bit of what’s going on in the background of this data, and make a distinction between them based on a historical trend.

The first list is going to show the occupations with the most growth from 2010 to 2011, which have also shown net growth from 2001 to 2011. These are occupations continuing their ascent.

Description2001 Jobs2010 Jobs2011 Jobs2010-2011 ChangeChange2011 Median Hourly WageEducation Level
Registered nurses2,156,4642,606,6792,639,75933,080483,295$30.39Associate's degree
Managers, all other1,599,5222,086,9942,113,33126,337513,809$20.91Work experience in a related field
Computer software engineers, applications509,657539,009550,78111,77241,124$39.90Bachelor's degree
Network systems and data communications analysts314,141395,378405,2919,91391,150$27.95Bachelor's degree
Executive secretaries and administrative assistants1,452,1381,482,2151,491,9599,74439,821$19.28Moderate-term on-the-job training
Management analysts878,0221,169,6341,178,6469,012300,624$26.39Degree plus work experience
Licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses646,469743,162752,1298,967105,660$18.97Postsecondary vocational award
Accountants and auditors1,347,9921,502,5631,511,3608,797163,368$24.41Bachelor's degree
Roustabouts, oil and gas46,50275,63682,6787,04236,176$19.06Moderate-term on-the-job training
Employment, recruitment, and placement specialists210,307211,319218,3297,0108,022$21.64Bachelor's degree
EMSI Complete Employment - 2011.2

Naturally, the wages have come up quite a bit. But the other interesting thing about this list is that the education levels have come up quite a bit as well. Seven of these occupations typically require some kind of certificate. Four of them require a BA. That’s kind of interesting. We would expect that higher earnings jobs correlate with higher education levels, so this makes sense. Let’s look at our second list.

Description2001 Jobs2010 Jobs2011 Jobs2010-2011 ChangeChange2011 Median Hourly WageEducation Level
Truck drivers, heavy and tractor-trailer1,991,3311,934,8991,966,60931,710 (24,722)$18.67Moderate-term on-the-job training
Sales representatives, wholesale and manufacturing, except technical and scientific products1,560,6331,474,5671,486,71212,145 (73,921)$24.51Moderate-term on-the-job training
Machinists480,785376,637387,58410,947 (93,201)$18.06Long-term on-the-job training
Welders, cutters, solderers, and brazers453,484378,759389,10710,348 (64,377)$17.30Long-term on-the-job training
Automotive service technicians and mechanics832,672759,277769,61710,340 (63,055)$18.19Postsecondary vocational award
Industrial machinery mechanics303,577286,156292,7286,572 (10,849)$21.47Long-term on-the-job training
Industrial engineers234,042210,906217,2466,340 (16,796)$35.77Bachelor's degree
First-line supervisors/managers of production and operating workers800,402619,877625,0185,141 (175,384)$24.64Work experience in a related field
Sales representatives, wholesale and manufacturing, technical and scientific products447,095422,354426,9804,626 (20,115)$33.67Moderate-term on-the-job training
Postal service mail carriers359,912344,815348,7233,908 (11,189)$25.10Short-term on-the-job training
EMSI Complete Employment - 2011.2

This table shows us the top 10 occupations with the most growth from 2010 to 2011 which also show net decline from 2001 to 2011. These are jobs that might have been in trouble at some point in the last decade, but are showing good signs as we move forward.

Their earnings look a lot better, as we would expect. But look at their education levels. Only two of the occupations require any kind of higher education, and only one of them requires a BA. This seems to indicate a real distinction between these occupations and those that have seen growth.

First, we can make the observation that higher education level occupations have tended to be more stable. Without going deeper we can’t say much about why this is, but it seems to be a pretty strong correlation.

Second, it looks like most of the jobs on the second list are related to manufacturing. That’s an industry sector with historical decline that’s seen a very strong upswing in the most recent data, as we’ve noted elsewhere.

Okay, returning to the initial question: “Are top 10 lists worthwhile?”

We think they are. But they become even more worthwhile as we pay careful attention to them and ask questions about the data we see. Top 10 lists are fine at face value, but even more valuable if we dig in a little further.

Joshua Wright

Reach out at jwright@economicmodeling.com

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