The Biggest Threat to Service-Sector Wages: The Service Sector

Published on Mar 8, 2011

Updated on Nov 3, 2022

Written by Emsi Burning Glass

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By Hank Robison, EMSI Senior Economist

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the shift in the US economy away from production and increasingly into services. Consider the employment data from the US: In 1950, 30% of all US jobs were in manufacturing while 63% were in services. In 2011, 9% of total employment remains in manufacturing, 86% in services.

So does this signify a shift in consumers’ tastes from manufactured goods to services? The short answer is no; if anything, we consume more “things.” The difference is that things are manufactured with far less labor, and they are increasingly made somewhere else: the manufacturing industries still remaining in the US have seen tremendous improvements in productivity. Less-skilled work continues to flow out of the US, but the work that remains is higher-skilled, and more productive. Accordingly, the manufacturing jobs that remain in the US pay well.

Some look to the loss of US manufacturing jobs without concern: the future (they argue) is in service industries. As jobs disappear in manufacturing, others open in services like health care and retail. The problem is that as more manufacturing jobs leave, more productivity leaves as well.

Consider this: Classical economists saw productivity as the key in determining relative wages — the more productive the laborer, the higher his/her wages. Unlike manufacturing, service-sector jobs have strict limits in terms of productivity. For example, a live performance of Beethoven’s 5th requires the same amount of performers/employees as when it was performed in the 19th century. Compare that with the production of almost anything manufactured — a bolt of fabric, for example.

So how is it that workers in service sectors, where productivity has relatively little growth, maintain wages competitive with workers in manufacturing, where productivity has done nothing but increase?

At least part of the answer lies in what modern economists have dubbed the “Baumol Effect,” after influential economist William Baumol. The Baumol Effect states that lower productivity notwithstanding, service industries have to pay wages comparable to manufacturing in order to get the workers it needs: it’s a simple matter of labor market competition.

So what’s wrong with a service-based economy? It shrinks manufacturing employment as well as its ability to prop up wages. A labor market that loses wage pressures of high-productivity manufacturing industries will settle at wage rates lower than markets where this wage-boosting effect is present. Economic development policy makers should be careful about shunning manufacturing.

See more on this topic here: Industry Employment and Income Comparison.

Illustration by Mark Beauchamp