What do people in New Orleans do for work? Here's the breakdown

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PICTURES OF MONEY / CREATIVE COMMONS 2.0
  • PICTURES OF MONEY / CREATIVE COMMONS 2.0

Although New Orleans mostly celebrates Labor Day as "that weekend when Decadence happens," the holiday — established in 1894 — celebrates American workers and the labor movement. In tribute, here's a quick look at what people in and around New Orleans are doing for work these days, and how it stacks up to what people do in the greater U.S.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) studies New Orleans as part of a "metropolitan statistical area" (MSA) that includes New Orleans and Metairie. If you lived in this MSA in 2016, you were most likely to work in one of its three biggest occupational groups: office and administrative support; food preparation and service; and sales and related (which includes retail jobs, cashiers, that sort of thing). Together these occupations made up almost 40 percent of area jobs. The next most popular job group is in transportation and material moving (bus and taxi drivers, sailors, truck and ship loaders), making up 8.1 percent of area jobs.

The other 18 occupational groups each comprise from .1 to 7 percent of the workforce. Some notably uncommon jobs: legal jobs made up just 1 percent of jobs in this MSA; life, physical and social science jobs made up .6 percent. The most uncommon occupation group was farming, fishing and forestry (farm workers, ranchers, agricultural inspectors). Only .1 percent of jobs in the area were in this field.

A more detailed BLS report breaks down occupational groups into individual professions and shows just how many jobs were available in the city last year. It's fun to poke through, and there are some eye-openers: there were 15,540 waiter or waitress jobs, but just 180 positions for substance abuse counselors; 18,450 cashiers but only 700 kindergarten teachers.

Is this distribution (heavy on service jobs, light on professional gigs) normal? Actually, yeah. The most popular job in America is retail salesperson. According to BLS's Occupational Employment Statistics chart, more than 4.5 million people nationwide worked as retail salespersons and clerks in 2016. That was followed closely by cashiers and food preparation and serving workers (each with close to 3.5 million workers) and general office clerks (2.9 million workers). Of the top five occupations for Americans, the only job represented that we really think of as a professional, career-track job is registered nurse. Census data counted 2.8 million nurses in the U.S. last year.

This doesn't undercut the notion that the job market in New Orleans is unusually difficult for people looking to start a career; there are both wage and cost of living issues in city that present unique challenges. But it does indicate that — as national studies and reports have suggested — the greater workforce is changing rapidly, and our conception of what "regular Americans" do for work may be a little outdated.

Most Americans do not work in factories, or in coal mines. Only some people work in professional fields such as business, technology or law. By far the most common jobs for Americans are service-sector jobs, whether that be in retail, food service or customer service; office assistant jobs such as secretaries and clerks; or jobs in the growing field of health care and caretaking. Caretaking and food service in particular make up two of three of the fastest-growing jobs in America, according to a recent edition of the Current Population Survey — construction jobs were in the top spot.

The takeaway is that it's way past time to stop thinking of service-sector jobs as temporary gigs for people in high school or part-time workers. Certainly early labor advocates would have argued for workplace protections and better wages for people in these fields, who now form the backbone of the American workforce. And the same standard should hold true in health care, where many aides, assistants and home care workers aren't well-compensated relative to better-credentialed nurses and doctors.

The nature of work, in New Orleans and beyond, is changing. On Labor Day, let's take a moment to think about making the future of work better for everyone.


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