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Summer 2007 Vol. 51, Number 2

Earnings data from BLS
What we have and how to find it

Elka Maria Torpey


Earnings data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reveal who makes what in the workplace. These data help employers set wages and help workers negotiate pay. And for many people, earnings information can be a deciding factor when choosing an occupation. No wonder, then, that questions about earnings are among those most frequently asked of BLS.

And they’ve come to the right place: BLS has more earnings data than any other Government agency. In fact, BLS has so much information on the subject that people might need help figuring out what is available where.

This article describes five BLS programs and the types of earnings data they provide. Key distinctions are highlighted in a table on page 40. You also have a chance to check your earnings know-how: Try the quiz on page 44. 

Four surveys and a census

BLS collects reams of earnings data. To better understand the different types, it helps to know a little bit about the programs that collect it.

For starters, programs vary in how they get their data. Four BLS earnings programs are surveys, and one program is a census. A survey gathers information about only some of the people or establishments in the group being studied. Based on that random sample, researchers draw conclusions about the whole group. A census, on the other hand, gathers information about every person or establishment in the group that is being studied.

Three programs—Occupational Employment Statistics (OES), National Compensation Survey (NCS), and Current Employment Statistics (CES)—ask questions directly of employers, so they are called establishment surveys. A fourth, the Current Population Survey (CPS), is a household survey; it asks questions of individuals instead of employers. And a fifth program is a census—the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW)—that gets its data from employer records that are provided to the Government.

BLS programs also differ in the types of questions they ask and the frequency with which data are gathered. Remember, no one program provides everything. Each has its own strengths and limitations. The following pages describe each data source, beginning with the one that provides earnings data for the most occupations.

OES survey: Wages by occupation and industry

If you want information about how much workers earn in a given occupation, including geographic and industry detail, you probably want data from the Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) survey. This survey collects wage data on more than 800 occupations in all nonfarm industries and in more than 400 metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas, all 50 States, the District of Columbia, and the Nation as a whole.

For example, you can learn what registered nurses earn in hospitals compared with what they make in doctors’ offices, or what architects make in the Santa Fe area versus the Boston area.

To provide a more accurate picture of how wages vary within an occupation or industry, the survey shows mean, median, and percentile wages. Mean wages are what is traditionally meant by "average" wages. Median wages mark the middle point of earnings: Half of all workers earned more than that amount, and half earned less. And percentile wages show the wages for the highest and lowest earning 10 percent and 25 percent of workers.

Limitations. Because of the way the data are collected, OES data are not comparable from year to year and cannot be used to show how earnings change over time.

Also, this survey’s estimates do not include the earnings of self-employed workers, the owners of or partners in unincorporated firms, or household workers such as live-in maids.

Moreover, although the survey is comprehensive, providing earnings data once a year for each of the occupations and industries it covers, data are not always available for every industry that employs an occupation or for every geographic location.

Get the data. One of the easiest ways to access the results of this survey is through the OES occupational profiles. For each occupation surveyed, the profiles show overall wages and the wages of workers in the top-employing and highest paying industries, States, and metropolitan areas. For example, in May 2006, the metropolitan area with the greatest concentration of registered nurses was Iowa City, Iowa. And California offered the highest wages, with an annual mean of $75,130.

Occupational profiles are listed under broadly defined occupational groups. So, for example, you can find registered nurses under the major group heading of "healthcare practitioners and technical." You can also search for occupations alphabetically.

A new tool on the BLS Web site lets you search for these and other detailed wage data using a form-based query. Users can also download spreadsheets of detailed data to search or use in calculations. OES data are also published in hardcopy as bulletins.

For more information, contact:
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Office of Employment and Unemployment Statistics
Division of Occupational Employment Statistics
Suite 2135
2 Massachusetts Ave. NE.
Washington, DC 20212
(202) 691-6569


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Last Updated: February 15, 2007