Professional and Technical Employees in the Labor Force

Updated August 2013

Over the last thirty years, a steep decline in manufacturing and concurrent growth in the professional and technical service sector has transformed the American economy. In the last decade, professional and technical occupations have grown both in absolute numbers and as a share of the total workforce. Today, more than one in five American workers is in a professional or technical occupation, and projections indicate this growth will continue for the foreseeable future. However, even as it experiences growth, this often highly educated workforce faces numerous challenges in the job market and the workplace.


Trends in Employment and Earnings

Many of the fastest growing occupations are those for professional and change in employment for occupations with more than 5 million workerstechnical workers. In 2012, there were over 27.7 million professional and technical employees in the U.S. working in one of eight occupational groups, including computer and mathematical (3,578,220); architecture and engineering (2,356,530); life, physical, and social science (1,104,100); change in employment for occupations with less than 5 million workerscommunity and social service (1,882,080); legal (1,023020); education, training, and library (8,374,9100); arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media (1,750,130); and health care practitioners and technicians (7,649,930).[1]

While some occupational groups experienced steady growth in employment over the last decade, even during and after the 2008 recession, others faced stagnation or loss following the economic downturn. The two largest occupational groups, education, training, and library workers and health care practitioners and technical workers both experienced an overall increase in the number of workers from 2003 to 2012. However, while health care employment rose steadily, adding nearly 1.5 million jobs in that time, education occupations peaked in 2008 and have since declined, for overall growth just over 500,000.

Similar patterns of change occurred in other professional and technical occupations. For example, computer and mathematical occupations grew steadily, with only a modest decline after 2008, while the architecture and engineering occupational group has yet to recover from losses during the recession. It is important to note that changes to occupational definitions in 2010 may account for some amount of variation in the data.[2]

Earnings vary significantly both across and within each occupational group. In 2012, computer and mathematical ($76,200), legal ($75,270), and architecture and engineering ($73,540) occupations reported the highest median annual earnings while education, training, and library ($46,020), arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media ($43,930), and  community and social service ($40,400) occupations reported the lowest. Both health care and life, physical, and social science occupations reported median annual earnings of approximately $60,000.[3]

With the exception of education, training, and library occupations, median annual earnings for professional and technical occupations have either kept pace with inflation in the last decade, or increased faster than the rate of inflation. However, while this is true at the median, this is not true for the highest and lowest earners in each occupation. In all professional and technical occupation groups, earnings for the top 10 percent of earners increased by a greater percentage than both median earnings and earnings for the lowest 10 percent of earners. Controlling for inflation, real income for the bottom 10 percent of earners in four of the eight occupation groups decreased from 2003-2012, as earnings for the top 10 percent grew, widening the gap between the highest and lowest earners.[4] For example, the 10th percentile for real income amongst health care practitioners and technical workers increased from $29,834  in 2003 (in 2012 dollars), to $30,870 in 2012, for an increase of approximately 3.5 percent. During that same, the 90th percentile increased from $113,536 to $128,000, for an increase of 12.75 percent after controlling for inflation.[5]change in income for highest and lowest earners

Many professional and technical occupations are full-time, with employees typically working a 35 to 40 hour workweek; however, there is some variation across occupational groups. For example, in 2011, professionals in arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media occupations were more likely than other professionals to work part-time (34 hours a week or less). Further, employees in computer or mathematical and architecture and engineering occupations were less likely than other professionals to work part-time. Amongst legal professionals, more than 30 percent reported they usually worked at least 50 hours every week, compared to 13.5 percent of community and social service professionals.[6]usual hours worked for prof and tech occupations

Representation of racial and ethnic groups among professional and technical workers varies by occupation. In 2012, black or African American workers were 11.1 percent of the total workforce. This racial group had close to average representation in health care occupations (10.6 percent), and far above average representation in community and social service (18.8 percent), but below average in all other professional occupations. Asian workers represented just 5.4 percent of the total workforce in 2012, but had above average representation in four occupational groups, (computer and mathematical, architecture and engineering, life, physical, and social sciences, and health care) and slightly below average representation in the remaining fields. Workers of Hispanic or Latino ethnicity, 15.4 percent of the total workforce, were underrepresented in all professional and technical occupational groups.[7]

The professional and technical workforce as a whole is largely made up of non-Hispanic whites. Professionals who are black or African American and Hispanic or Latino are more likely to be female. However, there was an equal distribution of Asian men and women in the professional and technical workforce in July 2013.[8]prof and tech workforce by race and ethnicity

In 2012, women were 47 percent of the total U.S. workforce and 57.2 percent of the professional and technical workforce.[9] More than one of every four employed women in the U.S. worked in a professional or technical occupation, compared to less than one out of every five employed men.[10] However, this distribution was not equal across occupational groups. Women were only 13.7 percent of the architecture and engineering workforce and 25.6 percent of the computer and mathematical workforce in 2012, but made up a vast majority of workers in the education, training, and library and health care practitioner and technical occupations (73.6 and 75 percent respectively.)[11]


Issues and Concerns

The professional and technical workforce is highly educated, and more than 50 percent of all workers in each occupation group held at least a bachelor’s degree in 2011.[12] In the life, physical, and social sciences, close to half of all workers had either a master’s, professional, or doctoral degree. In legal occupations more than 58 percent of employees held a professional or doctoral degree.[13]education attainment of prof and tech workers

However, as the cost of college increases faster than the rate of inflation,[14] many young workers face increasing barriers to professional occupations. The National Center for Education Statistics estimated that in the 2010-2011 school year, the average full-time student borrowed $6,800.[15] Those completing bachelor’s degrees in 2011 finished school with an average of $26,600 in debt.[16] The advanced degrees required to enter many professional and technical occupations means many young workers, particularly those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, face significant challenges when entering the workforce.

The 2008 recession also created near record unemployment for workers over the age of 55.  According to the AARP, 6.2 percent of older workers were unemployed in March 2012. Older workers spend more time looking for work than any other category of workers. The AARP found that the average length of unemployment was 55.7 weeks. Older workers are often forced to take part-time work for economic reasons. In fact, nearly 1.3 million older workers would rather be working full-time. There were also 256,000 older workers who want to work, but were too discouraged by conditions in the labor market to look for a job.[17]

The U.S. unemployment rate in July 2013 was 7.4 percent.[18] Most professional and technical occupations had rates of unemployment much lower than average; however, for some occupations the situation was closer to that experienced by the workforce writ large. While the unemployment rate was 2.6 percent for health care practitioner and technical occupations and 2.9 percent for legal occupations, the rate was 7.1 percent for education, training and library occupations and 7.9 percent for those in the arts.[19]unemployment rate for prof and tech occupations

Despite generally lower than average rates of unemployment in professional and technical occupations, professionals seeking work often spend a long time doing so. In 2012, 41 percent of unemployed professional and technical workers were out of work for 27 weeks or longer. The median duration of unemployment for these occupations was 18.7 weeks, only slightly less that the median duration for the total workforce (19.3 weeks).[20]

Many occupations for professional and technical workers are susceptible to increased competition both internationally, with increased offshoring and outsourcing, and domestically with increasing numbers of temporary guest workers. Computer and mathematical and architecture and engineering occupations are particularly vulnerable to these economic forces.[21]

Professionals in the arts must contend with issues involving theft of intellectual property. Piracy of copyrighted materials such as movies, books, and music costs the entertainment industry billions each year. As the industry struggles to develop models of content delivery that meet consumers changing demands for how they access such materials, professional and technical workers in the arts suffer from lost revenue that provide their health care, pension, and income.

Finally, trends toward the privatization of historically public functions are affecting many professions — especially those in education and health services — and raising concerns about the ability of many professional and technical workers to maintain high levels of quality and service.


Union Organization

From 2003 to 2012, the number of professional and technical workers who were union members increased by approximately 300,000 workers to over 4.9 million members in 2012.[22] Union membership in 2012 averaged 17.1 percent among all professional and technical workers. However, there was significant variation in density by occupation. Special education teachers and secondary education teachers had the highest density with 56.7 and 54.1 percent respectively. Petroleum engineers and dental hygienists however, had less than one percent union density in 2012.[23]

While the absolute number of unionized professional and technical workers increased in the last decade, the density of union members in the professional and technical workforce fell from 18.1 to 17.1 percent in that time.[24] While some of this change may be a function of sampling error, it suggests that union membership, while growing, is not keeping pace with total employment growth. There are a number of possible explanations for this phenomenon, including attrition as older members retire and are not replaced by younger workers and an increase in practices by both private employers and state legislatures that place obstacles in the path of collective bargaining.[25]

In an effort to address workers’ need for a voice and representation in the workplace, and adapt to a changing landscape of the labor market, unions seeking to expand membership in the professional and technical occupations are increasingly demonstrating their commitment to cooperation through the formation of labor-management partnerships. Labor-management partnerships are an effective way to create efficiency in the workplace, identify cost savings measures, improve communication, collaborate to solve problems, and achieve results. Successful labor-management partnerships can be found in the public and private sectors and across many industries, including education and health care. Unions are demonstrating to workers that they are capable of defending their rights, voicing their concerns, and resolving conflicts.

A number of unions, which work to negotiate fair compensation, protect benefits and win paid sick leave, and ensure safe and healthy working conditions for their members, represent professional and technical workers. Professional unions include the:

    • Actors’ Equity Association;
    • American Federation of Government Employees;
    • American Federation of Musicians;
    • American Federation of School Administrators;
    • American Federation of Teachers;
    • American Guild of Musical Artists;
    • American Federation of Professional Athletes;
    • International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts;
    • International Association of Fire Fighters;
    • International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers;
    • International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers;
    • International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers;
    • International Union of Painters and Allied Trades;
    • Office and Professional Employees International Union;
    • Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union;
    • SAG-AFTRA;
    • Seafarers International Union of North America;
    • United Steelworkers;
    • Utility Workers Union of America; and
    • Writers Guild of America, East.

For more information about the professional and technical workforce, click here.

For more information about intellectual property theft, click here.

For more information about scientists and engineers, click here.

For more information about professional and technical workers, click here.



[1] Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, “Occupation Profiles” May 2003 – May 2012, accessed August 20, 2013, www.bls.gov/oes/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, “Occupation Profiles” May 2012, accessed August 20, 2013, www.bls.gov/oes/

[4] Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, “Occupation Profiles” May 2003 – May 2012, accessed August 20, 2013, www.bls.gov/oes/

[5] Ibid.

[6] U.S. Census Bureau, DataFerrett, American Community Survey, Public Use Microdata, 2011.

[7] U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey, Table 11, “Employed persons by detailed occupation, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity,” 2012

[8] U.S. Census Bureau, DataFerrett, Current Population Survey, Monthly Microdata, July 2013.

[9] U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey, Table 11, “Employed persons by detailed occupation, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity,” 2012

[10] U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey, Table 10, Employed persons by occupation, race, Hispanic or Latino ethnicity, and sex, 2012.

[11] U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey, Table 11, “Employed persons by detailed occupation, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity,” 2012

[12] U.S. Census Bureau, DataFerrett, American Community Survey, Public Use Microdata, 2011.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Michelle Jamrisko and Ilan Kolet, “Cost of College Degree in U.S. Soars 12 Fold: Chart of the Day,” Bloomberg, August 15, 2012. Available at: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-08-15/cost-of-college-degree-in-u-s-soars-12-fold-chart-of-the-day.html

[15] U.S. Department of Education, Federal Student Aid, Direct Loan and Federal Family Education Loan Programs, Cohort Default Rate Database retrieved December 15, 2012, from http://www2.ed.gov/offices/OSFAP/defaultmanagement/cdr.html. See Digest of Education Statistics 2012, table 400.

[16] The Project on Student Debt, “Average Student Debt Climbs to $26,600 for Class of 2011,” The Institute for College Access and Success, October 18, 2012. Available at: http://www.ticas.org/files/pub//Release_SDR12_101812.pdf

[17] Sara E. Rix, “The Employment Situation, March 2012: Unemployment Rises for Older Workers.” AARP. April 2012.

[18] U.S. Census Bureau, DataFerrett, Current Population Survey,  July 2013.

[19] Ibid.

[20] U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey, Table 32. “Unemployed persons by occupation, industry, and duration of unemployment,” 2012.

[21] Linda Levine. “Offshoring (or Offshore Outsourcing) and Job Loss Among U.S. Workers” Congressional Research Service. Washington, DC. December 17, 2012.  Available at: http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL32292.pdf

[22] Barry T. Hirsch and David A. Macpherson, Union Membership and Earnings: Compilations from the Current Population Survey, 2013 ed., (Arlington, VA: Bloomberg BNA, 2013.)

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Steven Greenhouse, “Share of the Work Force in a Union Falls to a 97-Year Low, 11.3%,” The New York Times, January 23, 2012. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/24/business/union-membership-drops-despite-job-growth.html?_r=0

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