Posted by: Doug Henwood | April 17, 2017

Job demographics

Paul Krugman asks plaintively “why don’t all jobs matter?” To answer, he enlists the help of Slate’s Jamelle Bouie:

Finally, it’s hard to escape the sense that manufacturing and especially mining get special consideration because, as Slate’s Jamelle Bouie points out, their workers are a lot more likely to be male and significantly whiter than the work force as a whole…. Laid-off retail workers and local reporters are just as much victims of economic change as laid-off coal miners.

The loss of newspaper jobs, a trend of many years, has been very bad news for society as well as reporters—and the damage speaks to all of us in journalism, no matter how marginal. (See here for more on the grim employment picture.) The loss of retail jobs is a phenomenon of the last two months—employment in the sector was down 61,000 in February and March, but it was up 198,000 in the year ending in January. This shrinkage may be a new trend, as online shopping displaces the mall, but we’d need some more data before we can be sure this isn’t just statistical noise.

Unlike retail, the loss of manufacturing and mining jobs is a long-standing trend. Manufacturing accounted for 30% of total employment in 1950; that was down to 21% in 1980, and 8% in March 2017. Since 1980, overall employment is up by 55 million jobs—but manufacturing is down by almost 7 million. Over the same period, retail rose by almost 6 million; health care, 16 million; and bars and restaurants, 12 million.

Detailed data for the mining sector doesn’t go as far back as manufacturing, but it’s a similar story of relentless decline, though from a much smaller starting point. The entire mining and logging sector was 1.5% of total employment in 1958 (when the numbers begin); that was down to 1.1% in 1980, and 0.4% in March 2017. The sector includes oil and gas, which started losing share in the mid-1980s, with the collapse in oil prices; it went from 0.3% of total employment in 1982 to 0.1% in 2005. Then fracking kicked in, taking the share up a few hundredths of a percentage point over the last decade. Coal mining has long been a tiny sector, accounting for just 0.2% of total employment when the stats begin in 1985 (or 0.18%, to be more precise), to just 0.03% last month. That’s just 50,000 jobs in coal mining, which is about a week’s worth of employment growth at current rates. That’s 120,000 fewer than in 1985, but 170,000 jobs wasn’t all that much even 32 years ago.

What about the Krugman/Bouie explanation for why these sectors matter? Yes, mining is very heavily white and especially male. (See table 9 here for the raw data.) Almost 80% of the sector’s workers are white and male, nearly twice their share of the overall workforce. (The culture of mining is also deeply macho.) But there’s another reason coal miners get attention: because of our crazy system of voting, coal mining states like West Virginia are disproportionately important in the electoral map.

Manufacturing is another story. Almost 70% of the sector’s workforce is male—though 30% is female, not a trivial share. But it’s not a “white” sector: just over 6% of its workers are black men, compared with their 5% share of the overall workforce. Another 11% of factory employment is accounted for by Latino men, a point above their share of the workforce. Asian men are also overrepresented in manufacturing (4% in the sector, 3% overall). Just ask your average resident of Detroit or Gary whether they feel like the decline of manufacturing is a white issue.

There’s another reason for the attention paid to the loss of mining and manufacturing job: pay. In March 2017, average hourly earnings in the service sector were $25.86 (not including fringe benefits). They were $32.54 in mining and logging, 26% higher. Manufacturing paid on average $26.37 an hour, 2% above the service sector average—down from an almost 10% premium in 1980. Average earnings in retail were $18.01 an hour, 30% below the service sector average. And workweeks in retail are short—just over 30 hours, compared to almost 41 in manufacturing. So the average weekly wage in retail is $554; in manufacturing, $1,071, nearly twice as high. Almost 9% of manufacturing workers are unionized, compared with 4% in retail. And 92% of manufacturing workers have access to health insurance benefits, compared with 56% in retail.

Yes, mining and manufacturing jobs are often dirty, dull, and dangerous. But there are some good reasons other than bigotry why their loss is widely mourned. The 2008 winner of the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel should know this. Krugman is right that we could do much more to “limit the human damage” when jobs disappear. But it just doesn’t look good when urban elites are so out of touch with life in less favored zones.



  1. Thank you for doing the numerical footwork that Krugman and Bouie should have done.

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