The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. job growth is coming in all the wrong places

Sheena Dozier checked prices on groceries as Walmart prepared to open its store on First and and H Streets NW in Washington late last year. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

As our colleague Ryan McCarthy wrote, America's economic recovery has a qualitative problem: Yes, employment is coming back, but so much of it is not good employment. According to a new analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the industries responsible for the most job creation over the last four years are also the industries that pay the least.

We're talking about jobs pushing retail (that's a $10.37 median hourly wage), answering phones ($13.33) and serving dinner ($9.48). Together, these three industries -- retail, administrative/support and food and drink services -- account for 39 percent of the gains in private-sector employment since the recovery ostensibly began four years ago, according to the analysis by the National Employment Law Project.

To put that job growth in perspective, this graph from the report illustrates why the "recovery" hardly feels like one for many people looking for more than low-wage work:

Low-wage industries accounted for 22 percent of the jobs lost during the recession from 2008 to 2010. But they've accounted for 44 percent of the employment growth since then, for a net growth of about 1.85 million jobs. That means that the economy we have today is skewed more heavily than it was pre-recession toward the kind of employment that may not even cover basic housing costs.

This patterns differs from what we saw after the last downturn in the early 2000s. As NELP points out, low- and high-wage industries were responsible after the 2001 recession for roughly equal shares of job growth. Now that's clearly no longer the case, with bleak implications for less-skilled workers hoping to steer away from food service jobs.