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Occupational tenure in 1987: many workers have remained in their fields.

Generally, men have been in their current occupations longer than have women, whites longer than blacks, and college graduates longer than those with less education; almost half of the 55- to 59-year-olds have been in their current occupations at least 20 years Information on tenure-the length of time worked in an occupation-can be useful to individuals, employers, and labor market researchers. Individuals planning their careers can use tenure information to help identify occupations having long- and short-term worker attachment. In career planning, knowledge of tenure can aid in evaluating job satisfaction, job security, and career potential. Employers can use occupational tenure information in a variety of personnel planning activities. Together with information on separations, tenure data can be used by employers to anticipate the number of workers they may be required to hire to replace workers who leave their firm. The data also can be used to compare the occupational tenure of a firm's employees with the work force as a whole. Researchers in Government agencies, universities, employer associations, professional associations, and unions can use tenure information to study labor market behavior of workers in specific occupations of interest as well as in the labor market in general.

The information presented in this article is based on data obtained from a supplement to the January 1987 Current Population Survey. In that supplement, occupational tenure was defined as the cumulative number of years a person worked in his or her current occupation, regardless of number of employers, interruptions in employment, or time spent in other occupations. For example, a person who worked as a librarian for 2 years, as a teacher for the next 5 years, and then as a librarian for the last 2 years (their current job), would be classified as a librarian with 4 years of tenure. This measure should not be confused with employer tenure-the amount of time worked for the same employer- which was treated separately in the survey and is briefly discussed later in this article.

Median occupational tenure of the 109.1 million workers 16 years of age and older in January 1987 was 6.6 years. (For ease of reading, medians henceforth will be called averages in the text of this article.) Average tenure increased directly with age, rising from 1.9 years for workers ages 16-24 to 21.9 years for those 70 and over. (See table 1.) Most teenagers, of course, have not been in the labor force long enough to have much experience, and jobs held by students typically are temporary. Moreover, young high school and college graduates often try more than one occupation before deciding on a career, and entry into some fields is delayed until advanced degrees are completed. By the time they are in their late twenties or early thirties, however, many people have settled into a career path. Almost 47 percent of all workers 35 to 39 years of age had 10 years or more of tenure, while only 12 percent had less than 2 years.' A person who has accumulated a lengthy amount of tenure in an occupation often will try to remain, in it until retirement, because a change in careers could require a change of employers and result in a loss of seniority and pension rights. About 46 percent of the workers ages 55 to 59 had 20 years of tenure or more.

While the survey did not indicate when the current occupation was first entered, the data suggest that some older people had been doing the same kind of work virtually all their adult lives. Almost one-fifth of the workers ages 65 to 69, for example, reported 40 years of tenure or more, which means they could have started before age 25 but not after age 29. Because tenure was measured cumulatively, some of these people may have first entered their occupation well before age 25, with time away for military service, family responsibilities, or other reasons.

In addition to being a function of age, occupational tenure varies by sex, race, education, and other demographic characteristics. Generally, men had more tenure than women, whites more than blacks and Hispanics, and college graduates more than individuals with less education. In addition, self-employed individuals had more tenure than wage and salary workers, and full-time workers more than those on part-time schedules. The average tenure in any particular occupation not only reflects the ages and other demographic characteristics of workers, but also employment trends in the occupation. If employment has declined, the lack of jobs for young entrants combined with the aging of the experienced workers will tend to raise average tenure. Conversely, very rapid employment growth that provides jobs for many new workers will tend to lower average tenure in the occupation.

Among the major occupational groups, average tenure ranged from 10.4 years for farming, forestry, and fishing workers to 4.1 years for service workers, reflecting differences in the demographic profiles and employment growth rates of the detailed occupations within the groups. Averages are similar when workers are young, but diverge with age. (See table 2.) Differences in average tenure among detailed occupations were much greater than among the major groups, ranging from 24.8 years for barbers to 1.5 years for food counter and fountain workers. The relationship between tenure and age in detailed occupations can be seen in table 3, which ranks 277 occupations having 50,000 or more workers by median tenure.

Employment trends. The number of persons in occupations with the greatest average tenure generally has been growing very slowly or declining, but these occupations have sufficient appeal in terms of earnings, lifestyle, and other considerations to encourage continued worker attachment. Farmers exemplify this type of occupation. Although a career in farming is attractive to some young people, opportunities for new owner/operators have been limited by the growing expense of land and equipment and the consequent merging of small farms into larger, more economically viable holdings. As a result, fewer young people have gone into this field and the farming work force has aged. Only 6 percent of all farmers had 3 years of tenure or less, while 57 percent had 20 years or more. Lack of employment growth also has contributed to high average tenure in many other occupations, including barbers, railroad conductors, clergy, and millwrights.

In contrast, some occupations that would be expected to have high worker attachment have comparatively low average tenure because they have emerged in recent years and are growing very rapidly. Such occupations have a large proportion of young people with relatively little work experience. Computer programmers exemplify this type of occupation. About 45 percent of the programmers had 3 years of tenure or less, while only 7 percent had 20 years or more. Because of the impact of employment growth on average tenure, when analyzing a specific occupation, it is important to know how the age distribution of its workers compares with that of other occupations. Sex, race, and ethnicity. Average occupational tenure was 7.9 years for men and 5.4 years for women. Although the difference in tenure by sex was not significant for young people, it increased steadily with age. Among workers ages 60 to 64, the average was 23.9 years for men, compared to only 14.5 years for women. Men had more tenure mainly because their labor force participation has been more continuous. Many women currently in the work force interrupted their careers for extended periods for home and family responsibilities and, moreover, some resumed work in a different career. At all but the youngest ages, they were more likely than men to have recently entered their occupation. The lower tenure of women also may reflect their underrepresentation in the higher paying managerial, professional, and craft jobs.

Men accounted for most of the employment in detailed occupations having the longest average tenure. They represented more than eight-tenths of the farmers and barbers, for example, and more than nine-tenths of the clergy and railroad conductors. Women with the greatest tenure generally were those who had pursued traditional careers, such as elementary school teachers, registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, and hairdressers and cosmetologists.

White men had greater tenure than other men, averaging 8.3 years, compared to 5.8 years for blacks, and 5.1 years for Hispanics. White males were more likely to have lengthy tenure because they were older, and had higher labor force participation rates and lower unemployment rates. They also had better jobs than other men, who tended to be concentrated in lower paying jobs in the service group and the operator, fabricator, and laborer group. Black women, however, had more tenure than other women and about as much as black men. Historically, black women have been more likely than white

women to head families without husbands and, thus, have had a greater need for employment, Moreover, black wives were more likely than white wives to continue working after having children, compelled, in part, by the relatively greater labor force difficulties of black husbands, compared with white husbands.'

Full-and part-timeworkers. Average occupational tenure was 7.2 years for the 93.7 million full-time workers in January 1987, compared to only 3.1 years for the 15.4 million part-time workers. 3 Many part-time workers do not have a strong attachment to their occupation and are more likely than others to change jobs, become unemployed, or leave the labor force, thereby slowing their accumulation of experience in any particular occupation. Almost seven-tenths of all part-time workers were women, many of whom were employed in administrative support occupations. Some mothers prefer shorter hours or fewer workdays per week which allows them to schedule their jobs around family responsibilities. Almost 23 percent of the part-time workers were teenagers, compared with less than 3 percent of the full-time workers. Retail sales and food service occupations are major sources of jobs for teenagers who are in school and want to work part time.

Differences in the age distribution and gender of parttime workers affected tenure. Interestingly, men in part-time jobs had higher tenure than women at most ages, but their overall average was lower because a disproportionately large number were young; relatively few were of prime working age (25 to 54). More than one-half of the men in part-time jobs were under 25 years of age, compared with less than one-third of the women. Men in part-time jobs also were more likely to be older workers-15 percent were age 65 and older, compared with about 6 percent of the women.

Many older part-time workers had lengthy tenure. About 35 percent of those ages 60 to 64 and 45 percent of those ages 65 to 69 had at least 20 years of tenure in their current occupation. Many of these workers probably accumulated the bulk of the years while previously employed full time in that occupation, and then decided to reduce their hours or days of work, rather than retire altogether.

Education and training The strength of a person's attachment to a specific occupation usually is dependant on his or her investment in it in terms of education and training. The greater the investment, the more likely a person will remain in the occupation, because starting another career can result in loss of earnings and related benefits. An additional investment in training may also be required to change careers. Therefore, tenure tends to be lengthy for individuals in occupations that require lengthy education, such as physicians, lawyers, engineers, and teachers. Similarly, tenure tends to be long for workers in skilled crafts that require several years of on-the-job or apprenticeship training, such as machinists, electricians, and plumbers. Some occupations that can be entered without specialized education and training also have long tenure, including police and firefighters, whose job attachment is influenced by liberal retirement benefits.

Among workers under age 35, individuals who had been in their current occupation the longest usually were not those with the most education. In fact, young college graduates frequently had less tenure than their high school classmates who entered the work force earlier. However, tenure for college educated workers was greater than for other workers at age 35 and over, and increased directly with the years of college completed. At ages 55 to 59, for example, average tenure was 22.3 years for workers with 5 or more years of college, 20.6 years for those with 4 years of college, and 16.6 years for those with 1 to 3 years. (See table 4.) As a group, workers with no more than 8 years of (elementary) school had high average tenure because a disproportionate number of them were older workers, but at most age levels, they had somewhat less tenure than individuals who attended or completed high school. Self-employment. Average occupational tenure was 10.6 years for self-employed individuals and 6.2 years for wage and salary workers. The self-employed generally have greater flexibility in adjusting their work schedules to suit their needs and, thus, are more likely than others to continue working beyond customary retirement age. More than 8 percent of them were age 65 and older, compared to only 2 percent of the wage and salary workers. Self-employment was prevalent in many occupations having the greatest tenure, including dentist, farmer, and barber. Working beyond age 65, however, also contributed to the high average tenure in some jobs having relatively few self-employed people, such as clergy and farm managers.

Earnings. cps data on earnings for wage and salary workers who usually work full time indicate that occupations with high earnings have longer tenure than those with low earnings.' Average (median) weekly earnings of workers in more than one-half of the occupations in table 3 were greater than the $358 total for all wage and salary employees who usually worked full time in 1986. In almost four-fifths (112) of these occupations, average tenure also was greater than the 6.6-year total for all workers in January 1987. Similarly, about four-fifths of the occupations with less than average earnings had less than average tenure.

The wage and salary workers with the greatest earnings were concentrated in professional speciality and managerial occupations. People usually enter professional specialty occupations soon after college and many remain in their chosen field until retirement, particularly if they have advanced degrees or highly specialized education. Almost seven-tenths of the workers in the professional specialty group who were ages 45 to 54 had been in their occupation 20 years or more, and the proportion was about nine-tenths among physicians and lawyers. However, many managerial workers have been promoted into their occupations after years of working in other jobs and, thus, have not had time to accumulate much tenure. Nevertheless, almost one-half of the managerial workers ages 55 to 64 had been in their jobs 20 years or more.

A large proportion of the wage and salary workers with the lowest earnings were in food preparation and service occupations and in retail sales jobs such as cashier and counter clerk. Many others were child-care workers, stock handlers and baggers, and garage and service station workers. The occupations with the lowest earnings usually can be entered by individuals who have little, if any, previous training or work experience, and who want a job as an immediate source of income rather than a long-term career commitment. Consequently, large numbers of people enter these jobs but few stay very long. For example, 88 percent of the food counter and fountain workers had 3 years of tenure or less, while only I percent had 20 years or more.

Employer tenure

Data on occupational tenure and employer tenure differ because the former is measured in cumulative years and the latter is measured in continuous (uninterrupted) years. Nevertheless, as can be seen in table 5, there is a link between the two. A change in occupations usually means a change in employers. Of the 21 million workers who had less than 2 years of cumulative tenure in their occupation, about 88 percent also had less than 2 years of continuous tenure with their employer and most of the remainder had less than 10 years. Movement of workers from occupation to occupation usually occurred between, rather than within, employing organizations, except in the case of advancement to managerial and supervisory positions.

As expected, the probability of a change in employers tended to diminish as occupational tenure increased. Of the 9.3 million workers who had been in their occupation for 25 years or more, almost one-half also had 25 years or more continuous tenure with their employer and another one-fourth had 10 to 24 years. A disproportionate number of workers who had lengthy tenure in both categories were in occupations that (a) have high concentrations of self-employed workers, such as farmers and physicians, or (b) are restricted or limited as to type of employer, such as postal service mail carriers and firefighters. Only one-fifth of the individuals with 25 years or more tenure in their occupation had been with their employer 5 years or less. Many of them were accountants, engineers, registered nurses, automobile mechanics, carpenters, and heavytruck drivers.


Occupational tenure has increased in recent years and further increases seem likely. Average years of tenure rose from 5.7 in 1983 to 6.6 in 1987, as the work force aged.5 The increase, however, was more than just a reflection of an older population, as men and women at almost every age had been working in their occupation longer in 1987 than in 1983. Young people entering the labor force in recent years may eventually accumulate even more tenure than their parents. Unlike their mothers 20 or 30 years ago, young women today are more likely to remain in the labor force for a large part of their adult lives and to work even when they have infants and toddlers at home . Another factor that may eventually increase tenure among both sexes is the changing occupational structure of employment. Occupations that require the most education-and thus, have the strongest worker attachment-are pro
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Author:Carey, Max L.
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Date:Oct 1, 1988
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