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Projecting Employment during Pandemic Recovery

Thursday, February 2, 2023

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) produces long-term projections of the economy, labor force, and employment in industries and occupations every year. The development of the projections depends on many assumptions. One assumption is that the economy is at full employment in the target year. That assumption allows our analysis to focus on structural instead of cyclical factors. However, some of the projected 2021–31 growth is expected to stem from cyclical recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting recession. Recognizing the need for more context around this recovery growth, we examined the gains realized between the projections base year of 2021 and a month before the September 2022 projections release (August 2022).

Some occupational groups recouped much of the pandemic-related job loss as the economy gained traction in 2021 and 2022. However, because our projections use annual averages, 2021 employment did not reflect the full extent of the recovery that occurred in some parts of the economy in the latter half of that year and the first part of 2022. As a result, total employment for the 2021−31 projections, and projected growth in many sectors, reflect fast projected growth resulting from low 2021 employment levels. BLS explained the extent of the pandemic recovery that had already occurred by the time of our 2021–31 employment projections release on September 8, 2022. We compiled estimates of these “realized gains” into a new data table and included them with the projections release.

From 2021 to 2031, we project total employment to increase by 5.3 percent. The chart below shows total projected change for each occupational group, as well as the share of projected growth that had already been realized in available data as of August 2022. This measure allows us to highlight some distinctions across groups that otherwise might seem similar.

Editor’s note: Data for this chart are available in the table below.

Take two groups with very fast projections over 2021–31, healthcare support occupations and food preparation and serving related occupations. Healthcare support occupations are projected to grow the fastest over the 2021–31 period. That growth will be driven largely by new growth beyond the employment that was recouped as of August 2022. That is, healthcare support occupations are projected to be in high demand because of structural changes in demand for the services these jobs provide. Growing demand for healthcare services from an aging population and increasing rates of chronic conditions are expected to contribute to the 17.8-percent growth among healthcare support occupations. Just 2.2 percent of the projected total growth had occurred by August 2022, as healthcare support occupations experienced a smaller pandemic-induced decline in the base year and, thus, a smaller resulting recovery than many other occupational groups.

Food preparation and serving related occupations, however, have fast projected growth that is driven largely by short-term recovery rather than long-term expected gains. Food preparation and serving related occupations are projected to grow 11.2 percent from 2021 to 2031. As the chart above shows, nearly three-quarters of the projected 2021−31 employment change had already been realized as of August 2022, as pandemic factors receded and consumers increasingly resumed their previous patterns of buying food away from home. The realized gains concept provides context to the fast projected growth in this group because it allows us to see the recovery growth that has already occurred—as a subset of the increasing demand for new jobs expected by 2031—driving that projection.

The August 2022 estimates of realized gains provide an interim snapshot of the dynamic pandemic recovery that had occurred in 2021 and 2022. This new product provides a clearer picture about the parts of the economy that are expected to experience cyclical recovery rather than new job growth. I am proud of the BLS staff for developing an innovative product to give context to our 2021–31 projections, keeping with the values of gold standard data for which BLS is known.

For more information, visit the BLS Employment Projections program.

Projected percent change in employment, by occupational group, 2021–31, including realized employment change as of August 2022
Occupation Projected percent change, 2021–31, beyond realized employment growth Projected percent change, realized as of August 2022

Healthcare support

15.3% 2.2%

Computer and mathematical

10.4 4.6

Personal care and service

7.8 5.8

Food preparation and serving related

2.7 8.3

Community and social service

8.1 2.1

Legal

7.3 2.1

Healthcare practitioners and technical

6.5 2.0

Management

3.9 3.6

Business and financial operations

3.4 3.6

Educational instruction and library

3.5 3.6

Life, physical, and social science

3.2 3.6

Arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media

1.8 4.8

Transportation and material moving

1.6 4.7

Building and grounds cleaning and maintenance

2.0 3.3

Total, all occupations

1.4 3.8

Installation, maintenance, and repair

1.3 3.6

Architecture and engineering

0.0 3.6

Construction and extraction

0.4 3.2

Protective service

0.5 1.6

Farming, fishing, and forestry

0.8 0.0

Sales and related

-1.1 -

Production

-1.9 -

Office and administrative support

-4.5 -