The extent of occupational mobility is indicated by the number of workers who change occupations over a given period of time. Occupational mobility can be upward or downward, depending on whether a worker moves to a higher paying, higher status occupation, or vice versa. Since the early 1970s, the growth of higher paying, higher status occupations has slowed in the United States. This includes industrial occupations as well as (more recently) professional positions and occupations in military related industries. Combined with a trend towards downsizing and the increased use of temporary workers, these changes greatly magnify the problem of retraining displaced workers. Worker retraining in the United States is in large part administered under federal government legislation, most recently by the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act of 1973 and the Job Training Partnership Act of 1982.

Occupational mobility is one of the means by which American workers have been able to improve their economic and social circumstances in the postWorld War II years. Otdcupational mobility can be broken down into two types: mobility resulting from overall shifts in the occupational structure, such as from a growing proportion of white-collar occupations; and mobility resulting from workers changing occupations independently of shifts in the occupational structure. The former is referred to as structural mobility and the latter as circulation mobility.

Until the economic slowdown in the U.S. economy after the early 1970s, there was a tendency towards upward occupational mobility for male workers. While a number of social and cultural changes, particularly beginning in the 1960s, contributed to a broadening of mobility opportunities for historically underrepresented segments of the population, such as women and ethnic minorities, it was, according to some historians, primarily a more favorable occupational structure that maintained the positive mobility opportunities for men. With the slowdown in the economy, the rate of structural mobility also slowed, and with it the tendency towards upward mobility.

Through the second half of the 1990s, U.S. unemployment and inflation remained low while the economy expanded, productivity increased, and profits skyrocketed. Wages, however, had barely kept pace with the cost of living—real wages in 1999, in fact, were slightly below their 1979 level. Meanwhile, temporary jobs had come to represent six percent of available occupations, and were increasing. The smashing of labor unions in the 1980s, overtly supported by the Reagan and Bush administrations, as well as increasing globalization and free trade agreements, helped breed what Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan praised as a central factor in the economic boom of the midand late 1990s; namely, the "restraint on compensation increases … mainly the consequence of greater worker insecurity."

As a result of this and other factors, job tenure in the United States is the shortest of all industrialized nations. Between 1991 and 1996, the time average male aged 25 to 64 worked at a single occupation decreased 19 percent. Women's job tenures remained fairly stable since the early 1980s, though in large part this was due to the relatively embryonic stage of workplace infiltration by women in the early 1980s compared to the late 1990s. The tendency toward downsizing, outsourcing, and temporary workers, despite the mucheralded economic boom, was a major factor in this trend, which shows no sign of mitigation.

On the other hand, no small amount of this mobility was, in fact, voluntary. Higher-skilled workers found that shopping their skills around tended to offer greater opportunities for financial improvement than did a long-term relationship with a single company. In accordance with downsizing trends, moreover, companies increasingly demanded workers with a variety of skills; thus, a variety of jobs in a relatively short period of time was not necessarily an unfavorable resume characteristic, as it had been in earlier days.

Despite tremendous gains by minorities and women between the 1960s and 1990s, most studies find persistent institutional biases and obstacles to upward mobility for these groups. While women's penetration of the workforce and educational investment have grown tremendously, the gender wage gap remains stubborn, though it has narrowed incrementally. A number of studies on advancement among African American workers, moreover, have detected severe racial disparities in mobility in the upper-tier occupations. White management hierarchies continue to dominate and set the decision making frameworks, in which African American managers are typically placed onto racially delineated and relatively disenfranchised mobility tracks. Such patterns, while allowing for some financial gains for African Americans, nonetheless install a barrier on the degree of job autonomy, creative freedom, and substantive decision-making capacity and authority they may expect to enjoy. In addition, African Americans tend to generate lower returns on their investments of education and work experience compared to their white counterparts.

Analysts attribute these findings to institutional and social factors. For example, corporate executives and managers tend to enact decisions regarding recruitment and promotion that exclude minorities from advancing to prestigious positions. Qualification for such positions is generally based on such ambiguously determined attributes such as character, judgment, leadership potential, and perceived loyalty. The subjectivity with which such characteristics are judged results in the comparative disadvantage for minorities. To a significant extent, this is born of the fact that, due to historical and pervasive necessity, minorities, and African Americans in particular, rely on racially segregated job networks, thereby severely limiting the sort of interaction with whites in which they could demonstrate these vaguely defined attributes.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics determined that occupational growth rates would increase at only half the annual average rate from 1986 to 2000 as they had from 1972 to 1986. Higher paid and higher status occupations, such as those in the executive, administrative, and managerial category, were found to grow particularly slowly. Occupations in this category grew 74 percent between 1972 and 1986 but were projected to grow by only 29 percent from 1986 to 2000. In contrast, lower paid and lower status service occupations grew 46 percent between 1972 and 1986 and were projected to grow 33 percent from 1986 to 2000.

Whereas one-half of men were upwardly mobile in 1962, only about one third were in 1999. This decline was attributed to the slower rate of growth for higher status occupations. The projected decline in upward mobility was a continuation of existing patterns through the 1980s. That is, between 1962 and 1989, the rate of upward occupational mobility declined by 7 percent for men. Almost all of this decline occurred after the period of slower economic growth beginning in the early 1970s. Structural mobility for men decreased from 35 percent in the early 1970s to 23 percent in the late 1980s, a reflection of the lessrapid change in the overall occupational structure of the U.S. economy. For women, structural mobility decreased from 51 percent to 43 percent from the early 1970s to the late 1980s. That is, women's rate of structural mobility was higher than men's and decreased at less than one-half the rate of men, indicating that women were less affected by the less-rapid changes in the occupational structure than were men. Circulation mobility for men increased from 30 percent to 41 percent over these same years. Circulation mobility for women also increased, although at a more rapid rate, from 21 to 31 percent.

While men's occupational mobility was higher then women's in the mid-1960s, the pattern was reversed by the early 1990s. Furthermore, the occupational mobility rate declined as workers got older, regardless of sex or time period. This was consistent with the view that older workers had more to lose by changing their occupations, especially in seniority, pay, and pensions, among other factors.


Retraining is generally associated with displaced workers, those who permanently lose their jobs as a result of structural transformations and regional shifts in the economy. The 1,150 community colleges in the United States were the largest providers of workforce retraining in 1998. Many of these received corporate financing for retraining purposes. Community colleges were generally 10 to 20 percent less expensive than firms offering professional training. Community colleges often provide basic retraining of adult workers to accommodate the estimated 40 million American adults who experience some level of illiteracy.

The overwhelming majority of public and private education in the United States is geared toward children and young adults. The private sector spends about $40 billion each year on education and training. The Twentieth Century Fund Task Force, however, speculated that four times that amount would need to be spent in order for U.S. companies to genuinely maintain the level of training consistent with their emphasis on highskilled competitiveness, resulting in a "training gap" of $120 billion. Less than one percent of U.S. firms spend roughly 90 percent of all training dollars, most of which is geared toward sharpening the skills of executives and high-level technicians.

Since 1982, the primary retraining programs in the United States have been administered under the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA). JTPA programs are part of the overall government system of aiding unemployed workers. Prior to JTPA, retraining programs were largely run by community organizations, but, consistent with the views of the Reagan administration, private industry came to play a greater role under JTPA. JTPA programs are administered by Private Industry Councils; more than one-half of the council representatives are from private industry, while the remainder are divided among state and local government officials, unions, and community groups.

Unlike earlier government-sponsored training programs, such as those administered under the Manpower Development and Training Act of 1962 (MDTA) and the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act of 1973 (CETA), JTPA programs are performance based. That is, job trainers are funded not on the basis of how well they train workers, but on whether those workers receive employment. In spite of these changes, the overall effectiveness of JTPA programs has been similar to CETA programs.

A number of JTPA retraining programs are designed to assist displaced industrial workers, a group that has been particularly hard hit as a result of the declining growth of industrial occupations. One of these programs was developed in 1983 to assist displaced miners in the Minnesota Iron Range. Training was provided by community organizations, local government agencies, regional vocational schools, and community colleges. Regional firms also provided short-term training in data processing, truck driving, and welding. The program also provided job-search help. For those participating in the program between October of 1983 and June of 1984,62 percent were able to find new jobs, although one-half of these jobs were outside of the seven-county region in which the miners lived. Among the many similar programs administered under JTPA is one developed at the Cummins Engine Company in Columbus, Ohio, and the Metropolitan Pontiac Retraining and Employment Program in Pontiac, Michigan, a project jointly managed by General Motors Corp. and the United Auto Workers.

Facing declining growth after the end of the Cold War, the aerospace industry has posed a significant challenge for worker retraining programs. Starting in 1991, thousands of employees from Martin Marietta's Electronics and Missile Systems and Information Systems divisions in Orlando, Florida lost their jobs as a series of cuts were made in defense spending. With few defense contractors hiring, high regional unemployment, and skepticism towards defense workers on the part of commercial firms, many of these laid-off workers were unable to find new employment. A program was established in 1993 that was administered by the U.S. Department of Labor and partly funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. Additional funds were provided under the Job Training Partnership Act. Managers, engineers, and assembly workers were included in the program, which involved evaluating each worker's skills and trying to match them with available openings in the area, particularly in the high-tech medical and entertainment industries. Retraining took place in local community colleges and included education in computer-aided design and computer-integrated manufacturing.

Other programs in which displaced defense engineers were retrained had little success. Two months after an engineer retraining program in Long Island, only one participant out of a total of 44 had been able to find employment as a result of the program. In Los Angeles, a similar program was established to retrain defense engineers to become environmental engineers. Four months after retraining, only six of the 26 participants had found permanent employment as a result of the program and only two of the six had found employment as environmental engineers.

The approach to worker retraining under the Job Training Partnership Act was called into question during the Clinton administration. Under Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, the Department of Labor issued a draft of a bill in 1994 called the Re-Employment Act. The bill encouraged states to set up one stop worker training centers and would have extended unemployment compensation for displaced workers undergoing retraining. This faced heavy opposition from business groups, who argued that it would increase the federal unemployment tax, and the bill was ultimately defeated.

[ David Kucera ]


Blumfield, Michael, Jack Gordon, Michael Picard, and David Stamps. "The New Job Mobility." Training, May 1997, 12-14.

Davis, Steven J. Job Creation and Destruction. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996.

Knell, Suzanne. Learn to Earn: Issues Raised by Welfare Reform for Adult Education, Training, and Work. Washington: National Institute for Literacy, 1998.

No One Left Behind: The Report of the Twentieth Century Fund Task Force on Retraining America's Workforce. New York: Twentieth Century Fund Press, 1996.

Wilson, George, Ian Sakura-Lemessy, and Jonathan P. West. "Reaching the Top: Racial Differences in Mobility Paths to Upper-Tier Occupations." Work and Occupations, May 1999, 165-186.

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