Skip to main content

The Lower-Wage Workforce: Employer and Worker Perspectives

Professional Chef teaching young culinary student the art of cooking.  All images shot in a hotel's commercial kitchen.
A two-part study of how lower-wage workers and employers think about jobs and opportunities
  • Client
    The Associated Press
  • Dates

In 2013, The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research published a major two-part study to better understand how lower-wage workers and those who employ them view such jobs and the opportunities for advancing the careers of lower-wage workers. Funding for the surveys was provided to the AP-NORC Center by the Joyce Foundation, the Hitachi Foundation, and NORC at the University of Chicago. 

“During the Great Recession, about one-half of the U.S. jobs lost were middle-class positions, but only about two percent of the jobs gained in the recovery pay middle-class wages,” said Trevor Tompson, director of the AP-NORC Center, noting that 70 percent of job growth is taking place in lower-wage industries. 

Studies have shown that jobs that used to require a high school diploma are now being filled by better-trained workers, leaving lower-wage workers facing increased competition for jobs and fewer opportunities to advance through upward mobility. 

“There is broad agreement that America needs a skilled workforce for 21st Century jobs,” said Tompson. “There is widespread disagreement about the policies and programs needed to build that workforce. These surveys of lower-wage workers and the employers of lower-wage workers bring important new information to that debate.”  

Critical issues revealed by the surveys include: 

  • Getting ahead is seen as a personal responsibility by both workers and employers, with the government seen as holding only a small share of responsibility for helping workers advance.
  • While employers are investing in training, only a slim majority are confident they can continue to provide such training and development opportunities.
  • Employers say current employees have needed skills but did not when they were hired.
  • Employers are offering training and benefits for lower-wage workers’ career advancement, but few offer benefits that lead to skills a worker can use to advance their career outside the company.
  • There is evidence of widespread underutilization of training programs by lower-wage workers, and only a small minority of employers takes advantage of public funding opportunities to encourage training of lower-wage workers.
  • Lower-wage workers are less likely to be satisfied in their job or to feel valued for the work they do compared to the general population of employed adults.
  • Lower-wage workers perceive few opportunities for advancement.
  • Pessimism about job opportunities is especially acute among white and younger lower-wage workers.

For the purposes of the survey, a lower-wage worker was defined as a person earning $35,000 or less, full-time equivalent, per year. The AP-NORC survey of lower-wage workers was conducted between August 1 and September 6, 2012, with 1,606 adults between the ages of 18-74 who were currently employed full or part time or on a temporary lay-off of six months or less; not self-employed; and earning $35,000 or less, full-time equivalent, per year. The employer survey was conducted with 1,487 employers between November 12, 2012, and January 31, 2013. A stratified sample was used to select businesses by size and industry.

For more details, go to the survey results from employers and from workers.

Project Leads

Explore NORC Public Affairs Projects

The Long-Term Care Poll

A series of studies on long-term care and aging in America


The SCAN Foundation

AP VoteCast

More inclusive and accurate polling of the dynamics behind America’s elections


The Associated Press