Characteristics of Low-Wage Workers and Their Labor Market Experiences: Evidence from the Mid- to Late 1990s. Occupations, Industries, and Union Membership


  • Low-wage workers are spread across all occupations and industries. However, they are substantially overrepresented in service professions and underrepresented in professional and technical occupations. In 1996, for example, nearly one-third of all low-wage workers were in service occupations, compared to only 16 percent of all workers (Table III.8). Conversely, only 14 percent of low-wage workers were in professional and technical occupations, compared to 33 percent for all workers. (24) The share of low-wage workers in administrative support and clerical, and machine and construction occupations mirrored the corresponding shares for all workers. Low-wage workers are also spread across all industries (Table III.8). However, they are most prevalent in wholesale and retail trades.
  • There are some gender differences across occupations for low-wage workers. In particular, men are much more likely to be in machine and construction occupations, whereas women are much more likely to be in administrative support and clerical ones (Table III.8). We observe some similar differences by gender across occupation for medium- and high-wage workers (Table B.3). For instance, among medium- and high-wage workers, men were more likely than women to be in machine and construction operators (similar to the pattern for low-wage male workers). In contrast, however, female medium- and high-wage workers were more likely to be in professional and technical occupations (Table B.3). There are smaller gender differences, however, across industries among low-wage workers.
  • We also find differences in occupations across the low-wage worker typology groups that are consistent with previous findings on hourly wage rates and the availability of health insurance across these groups. Specifically, among low-wage workers, the young, single, educated male workers and the married, white, educated female workers are much more likely than their counterparts to be in professional and clerical occupations and less likely to be in service occupations (Table B.4). Thus, it is not surprising that these workers receive higher wages and are more likely to have available health insurance than their counterparts.
  • There are substantial differences in the occupations of jobholders and business owners, although the patterns differ by gender. For males, business owners are much more likely to be in professional and technical trades than jobholders, and earn low hourly wages because they work many hours (Table B.5). Female business owners, on the other hand, are overrepresented in service occupations (in 1996, one-half of all female business owners were in service trades, compared to only one-third of female jobholders).

Table III.8.
Distribution Of Occupations, Industries, And Union Membership Of Low-Wage
And All Workers In March 1996, By Gender
Job Characteristics Males Workers(a) Females Workers(a) All Workers(a)
Low-Wage All Wage Levels Low-Wage All Wage Levels Low-Wage All Wage Levels
    Professional/technical 14 31 14 36 14 33
    Sales/Retail 11 11 16 11 14 11
    Administrative support/clerical 5 6 20 25 14 15
    Service professions/ handlers/ cleaners 30 14 36 18 33 16
    Machine/construction/production/ transportation 32 35 13 10 21 23
    Farm/agricultural/other workers 8 4 1 1 4 2
    Agriculture/forestry/fishing/ hunting 11 7 8 6 9 6
    Mining/manufacturing/ construction 20 30 12 14 16 23
    Transportation/utilities 5 9 2 4 3 7
    Wholesale/retail trade 27 17 31 18 29 17
    Personal services 12 7 12 8 12 7
    Health services 2 3 10 15 7 8
    Other services 11 19 22 33 17 26
    Other 12 8 3 2 7 6
Union Member 7 19 6 13 6 16
Sample Size 4,389 16,186 6,088 14,544 10,477 30,730
Source: SIPP 1996 March cross-sectional samples.
Note: All figures are weighted using the 1996 calendar year weight.
a. The interpretation of the statistics can be illustrated using the union figures, which show that seven percent of all male low-wage workers and six percent of all female low-wage workers were union members.
  • Low-wage workers are much less likely than higher-wage ones to be union members. For example, in 1996, about 6 percent of low-wage workers were union members, compared to 16 percent of all workers (Table III.8). Among low-wage workers, there were no differences in union membership by gender. In comparison, medium- and high-wage males were more likely to be union members than their female counterparts. For instance, 18 percent of medium-wage and 27 percent of high-wage male workers were union members (Table B.3). The comparable figures for females were 15 and 22 percent, respectively.

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