Bureau of Labor Statistics

Essential work: Employment and outlook in occupations that protect and provide

| September 2020

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During a crisis, like a hurricane or the COVID-19 pandemic, some organizations close temporarily while others continue—perhaps even changing their mission. Which workers stay on the job in chaotic times, and what’s the long-term outlook in their occupations?

Workers in hospitals, food manufacturing plants, and utilities are among those who may be required to report in person. Exactly which workers are considered “essential” may differ, depending on where they live and other factors. But the goods or services that they provide are nearly always vital, in some way, to life and welfare.

This article highlights U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data for selected occupations in which workers help to carry out critical tasks. Keep reading to learn more about the employment, projected openings, wages, and typical entry requirements for these occupations.

Defining “essential”

What’s considered essential work in emergencies may vary, depending on where you live. Guidelines from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) suggest that the essential workforce includes those who provide:

The occupations selected for this article are just a few of the hundreds of occupations that the Labor Market Information (LMI) Institute identifies as being part of the critical infrastructure workforce, as outlined by the DHS Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). (See illustration 1.)

Critical infrastructure sectors

Essential occupations, by task

Workers in essential occupations have a variety of duties. Not all workers in these occupations are called on during a crisis, but some are. And they often must risk their own health or safety in such circumstances.

For selected occupations, tables in each section that follows show 2019 employment, 2019 median annual wages, and the entry-level education and training typically required. (Compare wages in these occupations with $39,810, the median annual wage for all occupations in 2019.)

The tables also show the number of occupational openings BLS projects each year, on average, from 2019 to 2029. BLS projections focus on long-term trends that capture structural change in the economy, such as growth in online sales or increased demand for healthcare. The projections do not consider events that impact short-term conditions, such as a stock-market surge or natural disaster. (Any long-term economic changes that may result from the COVID-19 pandemic had not yet been determined at the time the 2019–29 projections were developed.)  

Public health and safety

Helping people stay or get well and keeping them safe is the job of many workers in career fields such as healthcare and protective service. Selected occupations involved in this work are shown in table 1. Physicians and surgeons includes detailed occupations such as anesthesiologists, internal medicine physicians, and pediatricians.

Table 1.

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Table 1. Selected occupations that provide public health and safety

Openings, projected 2019–29; employment and wages, 2019; and typical entry-level education and training

Occupation

Openings, projected 2019–29 annual average

Employment, 2019

Median annual wage, 2019[1]

Typical entry requirements[2]

On-the-job training

Janitors and cleaners, except maids and housekeeping cleaners

305,600 2,374,200 $27,430 No formal educational credential Short-term on-the-job training

Registered nurses

175,900 3,096,700 73,300 Bachelor's degree None

Police and sheriff's patrol officers

51,000 688,400 63,150 High school diploma or equivalent Moderate-term on-the-job training

Medical and health services managers

47,000 422,300 100,980 Bachelor's degree and less than 5 years work experience in a related occupation None

Physicians and surgeons

23,300 752,400 >=208,000 Doctoral or professional degree Internship/residency

Clinical laboratory technologists and technicians

21,600 337,800 53,120 Bachelor's degree None

EMT’s and paramedics

17,400 265,200 35,400 Postsecondary nondegree award None

Radiologic technologists

12,000 212,000 60,510 Associate's degree None

Pharmacists

11,200 321,700 128,090 Doctoral or professional degree None

Emergency management directors

700 10,400 74,590 Bachelor's degree and 5 years or more work experience in a related occupation None

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Office of Occupational Statistics and Employment Projections

[1]Wage data do not include self-employed workers. The median annual wage for physicians and surgeons was greater than or equal to $208,000, the highest median annual wage published by the BLS Occupational Employment Statistics program.

[2]Unless otherwise noted, no work experience in a related occupation is typically required for entry.

Janitors and cleaners is the occupation in table 1 that’s projected to have the most openings—about 305,600 each year, on average, from 2019 to 2029. With nearly 2.4 million workers in 2019, this occupation had the second-largest employment of those shown in table 1. It is surpassed in the table only by registered nurses, which had more than 3 million workers.

Median annual wages for the occupations in table 1 ranged from $27,430 for janitors and cleaners to $208,000 or more, the highest median wage published by the BLS Occupational Employment Statistics program, for physicians and surgeons. Education requirements also varied, with occupations that pay more typically requiring higher levels of education than ones paying less.

Essential products

Making sure millions of people in crisis have what they need, such as food and medication, is a big undertaking. Workers in farming and fishing, production, and transportation and material moving occupations are among those who help to get essential products to consumers. Table 2 shows some of these occupations. Food processing workers includes occupations such as bakers, butchers, and others in food production. Agricultural workers includes farmworkers and laborers, agricultural equipment operators, and related occupations.

Table 2.

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Table 2. Selected occupations that provide essential products

Openings, projected 2019–29; employment and wages, 2019; and typical entry-level education and training

Occupation

Openings, projected 2019–29 annual average

Employment, 2019

Median annual wage, 2019[1]

Typical entry requirements[2]

On-the-job training

Cashiers

562,300 3,622,500 $23,650 No formal educational credential Short-term on-the-job training

Hand laborers and freight, stock, and material movers

380,600 2,986,000 29,510 No formal educational credential Short-term on-the-job training

Stockers and order fillers

254,900 2,135,800 27,380 High school diploma or equivalent Short-term on-the-job training

Delivery truck drivers and driver/sales workers

163,100 1,506,000 32,020 High school diploma or equivalent Short-term on-the-job training

Assemblers and fabricators

156,300 1,883,700 33,710 High school diploma or equivalent Moderate-term on-the-job training

Agricultural workers

132,400 902,900 26,030 Varies Varies

Food processing workers

98,100 832,800 29,320 Varies Varies

Farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers

80,900 952,300 71,160 High school diploma or equivalent and 5 years or more work experience in a related occupation None

Postal service workers

25,600 503,100 52,060 High school diploma or equivalent Short-term on-the-job training

Transportation, storage, and distribution managers

10,000 139,400 94,560 High school diploma or equivalent and 5 years or more work experience in a related occupation None

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Office of Occupational Statistics and Employment Projections

[1]Wage data do not include self-employed workers.

[2]Unless otherwise noted, no work experience in a related occupation is typically required for entry.

Of the occupations in table 2, cashiers is projected to have the most openings—about 562,300 each year, on average, from 2019 to 2029. Despite projected declines in employment for cashiers, which is due to the greater use of self-service checkout stands and increased online sales, BLS still expects many openings over the decade because of the need to replace workers who leave this large occupation.

Transportation, storage, and distribution managers had the highest median annual wage ($94,560) in 2019 of the occupations in table 2. Nearly all of the occupations in the table typically require a high school diploma or less education for entry.

Other infrastructure support

Utilities, information technology systems, banks, and other vital infrastructure require support from a variety of workers. (See table 3.) For example, there are several types of plant and systems operators, such as those who work at chemical, power, and water treatment plants. Similarly, engineering occupations include civil, industrial, and mechanical engineers.

Table 3.

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Table 3. Selected occupations that provide other infrastructure support

Openings, projected 2019–29; employment and wages, 2019; and typical entry-level education and training

Occupation

Openings, projected 2019–29 annual average

Employment, 2019

Median annual wage, 2019[1]

Typical entry requirements[2]

On-the-job training

General maintenance and repair workers

139,400 1,516,400 $39,080 High school diploma or equivalent Moderate-term on-the-job training

Engineers

117,500 1,810,100 94,500 Bachelor's degree None

Electricians

82,200 739,200 56,180 High school diploma or equivalent Apprenticeship

Computer support specialists

68,400 882,300 54,760 Varies None

Financial managers

59,600 697,900 129,890 Bachelor's degree and 5 years or more work experience in a related occupation None

Plant and system operators

24,800 311,000 60,330 High school diploma or equivalent Varies

Claims adjusters, examiners, and investigators

21,000 332,900 66,790 High school diploma or equivalent Long-term on-the-job training

Line installers and repairers

20,700 238,600 65,700 High school diploma or equivalent Long-term on-the-job training

Information security analysts

13,900 131,000 99,730 Bachelor's degree and less than 5 years work experience in a related occupation None

Hazardous materials removal workers

5,600 45,300 43,900 High school diploma or equivalent Moderate-term on-the-job training

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Office of Occupational Statistics and Employment Projections

[1]Wage data do not include self-employed workers.

[2]Unless otherwise noted, no work experience in a related occupation is typically required for entry.

In table 3, the three largest occupations—general maintenance and repair workers, engineers, and electricians—together are projected to have about 339,100 openings each year, on average, from 2019 to 2029. That’s more than the projected openings of all other occupations in the table combined.

In 2019, financial managers had the highest median annual wage ($129,890) of the occupations in table 3. A bachelor’s degree plus related work experience is typically required to enter this occupation. Many of the other occupations in the table typically require a high school diploma or equivalent for entry.

More information

Learn about the occupations in this article, and hundreds of others, in the Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH). The OOH has information about what workers do, along with their wages, job outlook, and more.

Visit CareerOneStop for online resources to help find a job, explore careers, and locate training programs near you. Jobseekers can get free help with a variety of employment-related needs from their local American Job Center.

About the Author

Elka Torpey is an economist in the Office of Occupational Statistics and Employment Projections, BLS. She can be reached at torpey.elka@bls.gov .

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Elka Torpey, "Essential work: Employment and outlook in occupations that protect and provide," Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, September 2020.

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