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November/December 2003, Vol. 126, Nos. 11 & 12
Exploring low-wage labor with the National Compensation Survey
Jared Bernstein and Maury Gittleman
A number of studies have
examined the characteristics of low-wage workers
and their wage trends.1 Most of these studies analyze the earnings and characteristics of low-wage workers themselves, in large part because such data are readily available. Less work has focused on the characteristics and, in particular, the skill demands of low-wage jobs.2
This article uses a relatively new data set to examine the skill content of low-wage jobs. The data set is from the National Compensation Survey of Occupational Wages (NCS), a survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and one in which the unit of observation is the job, not the worker.3 That is, information in the NCS relates to narrowly defined occupations and provides data on wages, industries, unionization, full- or part-time status, and other useful characteristics associated with those occupations.
A major advantage of the NCS is the assignment of so-called leveling factors to each job. The factors, described in detail in the next section, are designed to explain the content of the job on a number of dimensions, including knowledge required, complexity, and supervisory responsibilities, among others. The factors provide unique information about the skill demands, job responsibilities, and working conditions of jobs in the current economy.
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1 See Jared Bernstein and Heidi Hartmann, “Defining and Characterizing the Low-Wage Labor Market,” in The Low-Wage Labor Market: Challenges and Opportunities for Economic Self-Sufficiency (Washington, DC, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1999), and other papers in that volume.
2 An exception is Harry Holzer, What Employers Want: Job Prospects for Less-Educated Workers (New York, Russell Sage Foundation, 1996).
3 The survey provides comprehensive measures of occupational wages, compensation cost trends, the incidence of benefits, and detailed benefit provisions. The analysis that follows uses data only from that part of the survey concerned with occupational wages.
National Compensation Survey
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