September 6, 2021 by Clare Coffey
Labor Day: it’s a long weekend for barbecues, beers, and lazy afternoons. It’s a final chance to hit the beach, the lake, or the pool. It’s the last hurrah for summer before we dive into colder weather and the challenges of a new school year.
But it’s also an institution with a long history. Labor Day in America dates back to the early 1880s, when leaders in the American Labor Federation and American Association of Machinists proposed a day honoring the economic achievements for the workers whose productivity we all depend on.
New York City held the first Labor Day in 1882; two years later, President Grover Cleveland signed the law that made it a federal holiday.
Unfortunately, Emsi Burning Glass hasn’t been tracking trends in the labor market quite that long. But we do know that the reality of work in America has changed dramatically in the last hundred plus years.
Here’s five facts about the current labor market that might surprise the workers who celebrated the first Labor Day.
When the first Labor Day rolled around, trains were the newest and biggest innovation in moving goods and people across the country. Nowadays, a huge amount of our freight is shipped by truck–which means the convenience of our click-to-buy lifestyles depends on an army of truckers.
In fact, demand for truckers is so high that there are six unique job postings for every hire made in the industry, according to Drivers Wanted, an Emsi Burning Glass report on the commercial driver shortage.
The labor force is chock full of jobs that didn’t exist in the 1880s–and in fact, would be unimaginable then. The first electric power plant in New York was built in the same year as the first Labor Day: 1882. And it served a grand total of 85 customers. Think of how many jobs today depend on electricity–and how none of them existed at the time. But cybersecurity researchers, marketing analysts, UX designers–these, and a host of other occupations like them, have something in common besides the fact that they require an extension cord.
They’re all hybrid jobs.
Hybrid jobs require both technical and human skills: narrowly defined competencies like Java and Tableau, and broad capacities like creativity and strategic thinking. Both sides of the hybrid equation are relatively new: the human skills were probably less in demand when jobs depended more on physical labor (like farm work) or narrow but deep craft mastery (like blacksmithing). And according to The Hybrid Job Economy, these jobs are projected to grow by 21% over the next ten years–double the pace of jobs overall.
One of the first proponents of the original Labor Day holiday, Matthew Maguire, served as the secretary for Local 344 of the International Association for Machinists in Paterson, New Jersey.
Then as now, machining was a vital role in the manufacturing sector. But in 1882, machining was a job that took place squarely and exclusively in the physical world. Now, 58% percent of all postings for machining jobs call for a digital skill, according to The Digital Talent Forecast, a newly released report.
More and more, the digital and physical worlds interact and overlap–and jobs you might not expect need workers to have a foot in both.
In 1901, Ransom Olds patented the assembly line method that Henry Ford would soon make famous. The specialization of tasks and interchangeability of parts revolutionized the efficiency with which goods could be manufactured, paving the way for the widespread adoption of the automobile.
And that isn’t the only way manufacturing has evolved. As we saw earlier, modern manufacturing involves digital skills like Computer Numerical Controls and AutoCad. But it also involves a host of complex skills around logistics, process improvement, and quality control. In fact, there’s evidence that demand for advanced manufacturing skills outstrips supply. The Skills Gap in Production Roles found that posts for skilled manufacturing jobs tend to remain open 10% longer than posts for general labor.
Manufacturing in 1913 looked different than it did in 1882. Chances are, the industry will look different in 2050 than it does today—with every change opening up a new frontier of needed skills and sought-after workers.
A lot has changed in the US since the 1880 census. Los Angeles, rather than Philadelphia, is the country’s second most populous city. There are more than 38 states. And perhaps most crucially, the US population is no longer growing by 26% per decade.
According to The Demographic Drought, between 2010 and 2020, the US only grew by a total 7.4%. And its population is expected to start shrinking by 2062. With a smaller and smaller prime age workforce, and more and more senior older workers retiring, talent is going to become increasingly difficult to source.
So, as you crack open a beer or toss another burger on the grill this weekend, workers all over the country can rest secure in one unwavering truth in an endless parade of change. Labor, all labor, is valuable, from 1882 to 2021.