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Bleak outlook for the nation's employment [Commentary]

The Bureau of Labor Statistics' (BLS) employment projections from 2012 through 2022 confirm what Americans already know: The nation is in a structural unemployment crisis, and the outlook is bleak.

The U.S. job market has changed radically. Jobs are much harder to get, and better paying jobs require higher education or more advanced technical training.

In 2012, workers with a post-secondary education or higher earned a median income of $57,770 — more than twice the $27,670 earned by those with only a high school diploma. However, 30 million Americans over 18 lack a high school diploma, and 142 million Americans over 25 lack a four-year college degree. More than 48 million Americans are now in low-paying jobs. Over 9 percent of young workers are unemployed, and many of them are in deep educational debt and forced to live with their parents.

The BLS also reports that growth in the labor force is stunted by both slower projected growth in the overall population and decline in labor force participation — and this in turn limits U.S. economic growth.

Health care and social assistance, the fastest growing sectors, will provide one-third of the projected increase in jobs. The construction sector will not return to its pre-recession highs. Employment is expected to decline in manufacturing, the federal government, agriculture, information and the utilities industries. Most of the jobs will be in service-providing industries and will be low-paying.

The jobs being created aren't like those we lost. Two-thirds of the jobs lost during the Great Recession were middle-income jobs. However, one-half of those created since then are low-wage jobs, and many of these are temporary.

The U.S. working world is changing rapidly. In their new book, "The Second Machine Age," Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee point to technology as the primary force driving the transformational job shifts. Technology's innovations and energies— robots, digitization and increasingly complex machines — are racing ahead and reinventing our lives and our economy. These developments produce wrenching change. Fewer people are working, and wages are flat or falling — even as productivity, profits, and the income and wealth of the top 1 percent soar.

Factors other than technology also contribute to these transformative changes and their impact on the U.S. worker. Outsourcing of jobs to low-wage workers abroad is only one of the unfavorable aspects of world trade and the global movement of capital. At home fewer workers are needed in manufacturing. The power of organized labor has shriveled. Rising health care costs have cut into wages.

The recent BLS projections forecast the economy's low-wage trajectory. Of the 20 occupations expected to add the most new jobs, only one — general and operational management — requires a degree as high as a bachelor's. Most of the other expanding occupations offer low or moderate pay.

A dysfunctional Washington barely acknowledges these looming realities, and it's unlikely there will be any serious Congressional action on the jobs front before 2017, and then, only if one party takes control.

New Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, like current public opinion polls, rates unemployment and jobs as the nation's top priority. Given the authoritative and dire projections, a new and farsighted American ingenuity is demanded. We've done it before. This is the critical challenge of our time.

Perry L. Wood is an attorney and founder of the Economic Club of Annapolis. His email is plweed@verizon.net.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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