America's lower-income workers have posted the biggest job gains since the deep 2007-09 recession -- but few are bragging.
As a workforce sector, those earning $35,000 or less annually are generally pessimistic about their finances and career prospects. Many see themselves as worse off now than during the recession, a two-part Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey of workers and employers shows.
Jobs are seen as dead end: Half of the people surveyed were "not too" or "not at all" confident that their jobs would help them achieve long-term career goals. And only 41 percent of workers at the same place for more than a decade reported ever receiving a promotion.
Employers see plenty of career opportunities: Forty-four percent of employers surveyed said it's hard to recruit people with appropriate skills or experiences to do lower-wage jobs, particularly in manufacturing (54 percent). While 88 percent of employers said they were investing in training and education for employee advancement, awareness and use of such programs among the lower-wage workers was only modest.
Although President Barack Obama made it a national goal to "equip our citizens with the skills and training" to compete for good jobs, the survey shows a U.S. workforce that has grown increasingly polarized, with workers and their bosses seeing many things differently.
Seventy-two percent of employers at big companies and 58 percent at small ones say there is a "great deal" or "some" opportunity for worker advancement. But, asked the same question, 67 percent of all low-wage workers said they saw "a little" or "no opportunity" at their jobs for advancement.
Low-wage jobs have come back: Through last month, the economy had recovered only about 5.7 million of the 8.7 million jobs shed in the deepest downturn since the Great Depression. Low-wage jobs are usually the first to come back following a recession. While the outlook clearly is improving, economic growth remains anemic and unemployment is a still-high 7.7 percent.
Ronald Moore, 48, of Lebanon, Ind., is among those who have seen their situation improve. He started his own home-inspection company three years ago after he couldn't find enough work as a truck driver. But "nobody was buying homes, so no one needed an inspection," he said. "It was pretty rough in the beginning." Now he operates a custom cabinet business, where business is starting to improve. Slowly.
To gauge the experiences and perspectives of lower-wage workers, the AP-NORC Center conducted two separate surveys. A sample of 1,606 workers earning $35,000 or less annually was surveyed last summer, while a companion poll of 1,487 employers of such workers was conducted from November through January. Roughly 65 percent of the jobs the U.S. economy added since the recession officially ended in June 2009 have been lower-wage ones.
Despite those numerical gains, "lower-income households have been hit very hard and have not benefited as much from the recovery," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics. "Their real wages are going nowhere. And this is a group that has more debt, fewer assets, is less likely to own a home or stocks and with little capacity to absorb higher gasoline prices."
The Most Underpaid Jobs in the U.S.
Huge Schism Between Low-Wage Workers And Employers
Average Salary: $23,900 No. of Openings: 195,000 Job Satisfaction: HIGH
Those who work in security frequently praise the occupation's flexible hours (lots of night and 12-hour shifts result in more days off) and recommend it for people who don't mind working alone. Still, it's a job that can be particularly stressful to the psyche as well as the body. Security guards must remain alert to protect against and prevent fire hazards, larceny, vandalism, and other emergency situations and illegal activity. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that security guards experience more on-the-job injury than the national average for all professions; gaming surveillance officers specifically have one of the highest injury rates. Too bad the pay is so paltry for those making security their full-time gig. In 2011, the average median salary for a security guard was just $23,900.
Average Salary: $28,470 No. of Openings: 71,400 Job Satisfaction: HIGH
A sports coach trains either amateur or professional athletes for competition. But he or she also serves as an adviser, parent, teacher, and confidante for his or her team. The most-renowned in the profession -- the Bela Karolyis, the John Maddens, and the Pat Rileys -- have earned impressive salaries that came with adulation as well as endorsement deals. But most of the 242,900 professionals working in the field currently aren't coaching on that level, nor are they earning that type of pay. And the adulation they most mention to Glassdoor comes from the impressionable young people they coach on the secondary and collegiate level.
Average Salary: $29,100 No. of Openings: 162,900 Job Satisfaction: MEDIUM
The approximately 530,000 medical assistants employed in doctors' offices and larger medical organizations must do a mix of traditional office operations work and hands-on medical tasks. They take patient histories, assist in patient examinations, change wound dressings, and help with sterilizing equipment. Often, they're the first and last people a patient sees when visiting a doctor's office, so medical assistants play a substantial part in the overall patient-care experience. In recent years, a medical assistant's people skills and practical skills have been complemented by technological skills, since most patient records are now digitized. The multifaceted nature of responsibilities hasn't resulted in substantially higher pay, however. In 2011, the BLS reported a median salary for medical assistants that's $12,573 less than the national average.
Average Salary: $31,030 No. of Openings: 124,700 Job Satisfaction: HIGH
"There is a lot of satisfaction in helping people," writes one assistant department head to Glassdoor about working at Minnesota's Life Time Fitness club. Another recreation and fitness professional with Urban Active Fitness in Lexington, Ken., appreciates "The people you'll meet and relationships you'll start." So it's no surprise that as a whole, recreation and fitness occupations—aerobics instructors, camp counselors, and personal trainers—receive a boost on our Best Jobs list for their reported personal perks. The chance to be physically active and forgo a traditional 9-to-5 schedule also help boost these occupations' curb appeal. But fitness trainers earned an average $31,030 in 2011, according to the BLS. That's more than $10,000 less than the national average median wage.
Average Salary: $31,870 No. of Openings: 118,500 Job Satisfaction: HIGH
Today's administrative assistants have evolved beyond juggling phone messages and transcribing meeting minutes. They must now be thoroughly organized, have excellent writing and editing skills, and display a knack for multitasking. Often, admin professionals fulfill the roles of project managers, secret keepers, daily planners, customer service reps, and tech support. And despite wearing so many hats around the office, the more than 2 million employed administrative assistants were earning a salary that's well below the national average -- $30,830 in 2010. In 2011, they earned about $31,870. Corporate culture and outstanding office benefits -- but not compensation -- were the key contributors to this occupation securing such lofty scores for job satisfaction.
Average Salary: $39,070 No. of Openings: 45,000 Job Satisfaction: HIGH
The mercurial economy hasn't made a real estate agent's profession an easy one. Still, the BLS predicts approximately 45,000 openings in this occupation between now and 2020, thanks to population growth. Agents have to stay abreast to the local zoning and tax laws of various communities, plus keep a pulse on the atmosphere in communities where they might do business. Keeping tabs on market conditions is another crucial element of their occupation. This is also a job that requires copious paperwork and patience, but it's not a job that comes with copious spending change. Though the profession's highest-paid earned around $92,000 in 2011, a real estate agent's average salary was less than $40,000 that year. Some tell Glassdoor that they find reward in helping people find homes. For others, they appreciate the chance to make their own flexible schedule.
Average Salary: $40,680 No. of Openings: 58,200 Job Satisfaction: HIGH
The stakes are higher when a social worker has a bad day. The average, coddled office employee might become discouraged when the copier jams or the instant coffee machine goes on the fritz. But for a children, family and school social worker, a "bad day" could entail reporting suspected child abuse, having a proposed adoption fall through, or witnessing a parent losing custody of their children. Despite the high stress, social workers report to Glassdoor that they like working with people, and get a thrill out of positively impacting the lives of others. Their tender hearts don't translate to loads of legal tender, though. The BLS reports that a social worker's median salary was $40,680 in 2011, just shy of the national average wage.