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The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released a remarkable set of data this year that will transform discussions of work in America. The data, collected through the agency’s Occupational Requirements Survey, measure the skill requirements and physical demands of jobs in the U.S. economy.

The topline numbers from the data collection are newsworthy. In the U.S., businesses typically require workers to hold at least a high school degree, but 30 percent of workers are in jobs where there is no minimum education requirement. The physical demands of work vary considerably and, even in the modern U.S. economy, about 4 in 10  workers are required to exert an amount of strength beyond the sedentary or light level.

Beyond the topline numbers, however, the data reflect the complexities of work requirements. While many jobs are “easy” along one dimension, it is much less common for jobs to be easy along two or more dimensions. This has major implications for policy debates about the retirement and disability programs in the U.S., as well as efforts to prepare younger Americans for the workforce.

Physically demanding jobs often require standing for much of the workday and higher skill jobs often require some minimum level of education. Figure 1 displays the relationship of these two measures using the new BLS data for the 22 major group civilian occupations in the U.S. The figure illustrates the inherent physicality-skill tradeoff that typically characterizes U.S. jobs. Jobs with low physical demands tend to have higher skill requirements. 

For example, virtually all workers in a legal profession have minimum education requirements, but are required to stand, on average, for only about 15 percent of the day.  At the other extreme, workers in food preparation and serving jobs are required, on average, to stand for 97 percent of the workday, but generally do not have to meet minimum education requirements.

The physicality-skill tradeoff is remarkably strong. Based on the straight line that best fits the data in Figure 1, there is a clear inverse (or opposite) relationship between physical demands and skill requirements.  A 10 point increase in the percentage of workers who must meet a minimum education requirement is associated with an 8.7 point reduction in the percentage of the workday spent standing.

Given the tradeoff between physical demands and skill requirements, a natural question about the U.S. labor market is: “Are there jobs with both low physical demands and low skill requirements?” The answer is yes, but those jobs are relatively uncommon and tend to occur in particular situations (office workers in modestly-paid job positions).

Specifically, there is a strong concentration of workers in unskilled and sedentary job positions in the five detailed occupations listed in Figure 2. Altogether, there are about 2.5 million workers in such positions across these five occupations.