Workforce refers to both the total number of all workers and of workers available to a nation, project, or industry. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and U.S. industry also use this definition.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) conceptualizes the workforce, also known as the "labor force," as "all employed and unemployed civilians." Children below the age of 16 are not included in the count. Other groups that are not included in the calculation of the workforce are students; homemakers; those unable to work due to illness, disability, or other cause; retirees; and individuals who have left the workforce voluntarily, including discouraged workers.

The U.S. Bureau of the Census collects data that is analyzed and tabulated by the BLS, which publishes them in a monthly periodical entitled Employment and Earnings. In addition, the June edition of the publication provides data on nearly 600 industries for which monthly data is unavailable. Many times, articles or even entire issues of Monthly Labor Review, published by the DOL, are devoted to workforce data. This publication compares the U.S. workforce to that of other countries, analyzes the workforce in particular industries, and looks at the workforce by subcategories including education, race, age, and ethnic group.

Workforce data is also reported by occupation. The Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) is a periodic survey mailed to a number of nonfarm commercial establishments. In the survey, actual employee hours worked are reported by occupation. The occupations are categorized according to the Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) code for each industry and workplace surveyed. The BLS SIC Manual is available at most public libraries.

Studies of the composition of the workforce benefit both industries and individuals. The current method of defining the workforce was introduced in the 1930s. Prior to that time there was no measurement of workforce available, although a count of the number of workers on particular jobs was tabulated. Modem measurements of the workforce provide industries with insight into the location, skills, and availability of various types of workers, and provide a crucial aid in employee recruitment.

The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) joined with the DOL in November 1991 in a project known as "A Partnership in Work Force Readiness." The project's goal was to shape policies that help management and workers deal with predicted industrial and demographic changes and make the U.S. manufacturing sector more competitive globally. Jerry Jasinowski, then president of NAM, stated that reports submitted by the project in 1992 discussed "the results of our current efforts to assist companies in meeting specific challenges to achieving high performance workplaces in America's manufacturing sector." The key elements noted in these reports were the need for industry to keep pace with technological changes; to achieve higher productivity by showing readiness to reorganize work, training patterns, and education; and for overall flexibility in the workplace. The report also acknowledged the need of workers, line managers, and upper management to understand, monitor, and enhance the skills of a culturally diverse workforce to improve the global competitiveness of U.S. industries.

Workforce 2000, a DOL study undertaken to predict workforce needs in the next century, showed that the greatest future demand will be for workers with technical skills. BLS statistics released in 1996 show that the highest number of new jobs were created by the health-care and computer industries, and project that this trend will continue through 2005. Further BLS studies in 1997 revealed that administrative, professional, and service occupations will account for the majority of new employment opportunities created in the United States through 2006. Other projections show that Hispanic males will comprise the fastest-growing segment of the national workforce, although the mixture of ethnic and racial groups present in the workforce will remain virtually unchanged through 2006. These findings point to a need to ensure that Hispanic males receive the technical training required to prepare them for the jobs of the future, and show the policy value of workforce statistics and related projections.

Data revealing that more mothers with young children were remaining in the workforce, with projections of further increases in this segment of the population, underscore the need for expanded public and private sector child-care facilities and helped substantiate arguments used to pass the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993.

Recent BLS surveys and projections indicate that the workforce will undergo fundamental changes in the early 21st century as the so-called baby boomers reach retirement age. The large number of baby boomers currently of working age enabled the participation rate, that is the percentage of the nation's total population currently employed, to reach a record 67 percent in 1996. The changing demographics of the workforce were also revealed by the fact that the participation rate for males declined by nearly I percent between 1982 and 1993, and was projected to drop a further 2.2 percent by the year 2005. This loss of male workers was more than compensated for by an increase in the participation rate of women during the same period. Longer-term forecasts for the workforce include a gradual aging of the working population as the baby boomers approach retirement, followed by a sharp reduction in the participation rate as the "boomers" actually retire. The gradual but accelerating aging of the workforce has given rise to increased emphasis on protecting the availability of Social Security benefits, provision of elder care, and related public policies.

SEE ALSO : Child Care/Elder Care ; Family Leave

[ Joan Leotta ,

updated by Grant Eldridge ]


Bowman, Charles. "BLS Projections to 2006: A Summary." Monthly Labor Review 120, no. 11 (November 1997): 3. Edmondson, Brad. "Work Slowdown." American Demographics, March 1996, 4.

Kolberg, William, and F. Smith. Rebuilding America's Workforce. Homewood, IL: Business One Irwin, 1992.

"Labor Force." Occupational Outlook Quarterly 41, no. 4 (winter 1997): 25.

National Association of Manufacturers. Workforce Readiness: How to Meet Our Greatest Competitive Challenges.

National Association of Manufacturers. U.S. Department of Labor. Workforce Readiness: A Manufacturing Perspective. Schiff, Lenore. "The Growing Labor Force." Time, 3 March 1997, 34.

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