Here's the Truth About the U.S. Job Market

By Markets

The job market has changed and whether it's better or worse depends a lot on your training and the type of work you do. Image source: Andreas Klinke Johannsen, Flickr.

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Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have very different takes on the state of the job market in the United States.

One believes that progress has been made over the last eight years while the other would dispute that. How most Americans feels depends at least in part on their own situation. Someone unemployed or underemployed might tend to agree with Trump, while someone who found work during the Barack Obama administration would probably lean toward Clinton's point of view.

In reality, though, while you can debate the health of the job market, a new report from the Pew Research Center, complied in association with the Markle Foundation, shows that there are some cold, hard facts people from both sides of the aisle can agree on. Whether it's getting better or worse, the U.S. job market has changed. The Pew report, which analyzed government jobs data, found that "for the past several decades, employment has been rising faster in jobs requiring higher levels of preparation -- that is, more education, training and experience."

In addition, the number of workers in occupations requiring average to above-average education, training, and experience has increased from 49 million in 1980 to 83 million in 2015. That's a 68% increase, Pew said, more than double the 31% increase during the same time period (from 50 million to 65 million) in jobs requiring below-average education, training and experience.

Americans see the need to improve

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Pew conducted a survey nationwide from May 25 to June 29, 2016, among 5,006 U.S. adults (including 3,096 employed adults).

Over half of those surveyed (54%) agreed that "it will be essential for them to get training and develop new skills throughout their work life in order to keep up with changes in the workplace." Also, 35% of workers, including 27% who have at least a bachelor's degree, said "they don't have the education and training they need to get ahead at work," Pew reported.

To combat that, 45% of employed adults said they got extra training to improve their job skills in the past 12 months, the survey reported.

It's also worth noting that 72% of those surveyed believe they hold personal responsibility to make sure that they have the right skills and education to be successful in today's economy. But while accepting their role in the process, 60% of those asked "believe public K-12 schools should bear a lot of responsibility for this."

Perhaps most notably, the Pew research also found that many Americans think the current system of higher education does not properly prepare people for work. Just 16% of those surveyed think that a four-year degree "prepares students very well for a well-paying job in today's economy."

What is the U.S. workforce worried about?

"Eight-in-ten adults say increased outsourcing of jobs to other countries hurts American workers, and roughly the same share (77%) say having more foreign-made products sold in the U.S. has been harmful," reported Pew.

Furthermore, 57% of workers believe that the use of contract and temporary workers has hurt the U.S. job market while 49% believe that problems have been caused by declining union membership.

We are actually doing better

Counter to some of the political rhetoric that suggests American workers have seen wages decline, that's not what the Pew data show.

"The average hourly wage, adjusted for inflation, increased from $19 in 1990 to $22 in 2015, or 16% in 25 years," Pew found.

The research did show that the nature of work has changed, with jobs requiring higher levels of social or analytical skills generally paying more than those requiring higher physical or manual skills. The pay gap between manual and analytical jobs has also grown over the years.

"The average hourly wage of workers in jobs requiring higher levels of analytical skills increased from $23 in 1990 to $27 in 2015, or 19%. And the average wages of workers in jobs requiring higher levels of social skills increased from $22 to $26 over that time period (15%)," Pew noted. "In the meantime, the average hourly wage of workers in jobs in which physical skills are important increased only 7%, from $16 in 1990 to $18 in 2015"

Confidence and satisfaction are high

In looking at the data, it's easy to see why there's a political divide when it comes to answering the question "How is the job market?" Workers in jobs requiring physical skills have seen more outsourcing and lower wage increases than those in fields demanding social or analytical skills. In addition, workers across the board have questions about whether the U.S. education system adequately prepares them, and many workers see an increased need to keep training or studying in order to get ahead.

But while this research shows a level of worry about aspects of the job market, it's worth noting that the majority of those surveyed were confident in their job security.

"Today, 60% of employed Americans say it is not at all likely that they will lose their job or be laid off in the next 12 months. An additional 28% say it is not too likely," Pew reported.

And it's also important to point out that while underemployment or job dissatisfaction remains, most people are at least somewhat satisfied with their jobs.

"Overall, 49% of American workers say they are very satisfied with their current job,"while 30% are somewhat satisfied,Pew said. Only 9% are somewhat dissatisfied while 6% are very dissatisfied.

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