Contributions to the study of care work typically focus on those occupations that enhance the emotional, physical, and cognitive capabilities of others. Care work occupations are predominantly found in healthcare, education, and social and community service. Although there are cross-country differences in the economic return to care work, analyses of care work in the United States have found a wage penalty associated with caring labor. Many, though not all, care occupations pay low wages. In the US, the growth of low-wage care occupations has the effect of exacerbating wage inequality.
While past studies have explored caring occupations, they have not directly estimated the return to caring skills and activities. Bruce Pietrykowski examines the skill content of US occupations and the economic return to caring skills, analyzing differences in the returns to skill by gender and class. Since many caring skills are utilized in occupations that are not traditionally classified as care work, Pietrykowski’s study expands the scope of research on care work.
Methodology. Understanding the relationship between skills and wages is fundamental to explaining US wage inequality. However, skills are often difficult to measure. Educational attainment and cognitive tests are commonly used estimates of skill, but especially in the case of “soft skills,” they are very imperfect measures. So, Pietrykowski employs data from the 2014 Occupational Information Network (O*NET) to identify the following caring skills and activities for 623 US occupations: (1) Assisting and Caring for Others; (2) Service Orientation; (3) Establishing and Maintaining Interpersonal Relationships; and (4) Social Perceptiveness. For each skill, Pietrykowski used a numerical score to measure both the importance and level of the skill needed in each occupation. O*NET occupational analysts evaluated the importance of these four skills to an occupation using a standardized scale from 0 (“not important at all”) to 100 (“very important”). In addition, the skill level was assigned a 0–7 score standardized to 0–100 reflecting the degree of skill required for that occupation.
Next, Pietrykowski estimated wage models using linear regression and quantile regression methods. He examined the response of low-, middle-, and high-wage occupations and women’s, gender-balanced, and men’s occupations to a change in the importance and level of the four caring skills.
Main findings. Pietrykowski’s results reveal that assisting and caring skills receive a wage penalty for workers in low-wage occupations. Yet, this same caring skill results in a wage premium for high-wage occupations, for both women and men. Next, service-oriented skills also result in decreased wages for workers in low-wage occupations for which service is an important part of the job. This was the case for both men’s and women’s occupations. Pietrykowski found a noticeable wage premium for occupations in which establishing interpersonal relationships was an important part of the job, and this was especially the case for women’s occupations across the wage distribution. Finally, skills associated with being attuned to the behavioral and emotional state of others – social perceptiveness – were associated with a wage premium but only for high-wage, especially high-wage men’s, occupations.
Overall, with the exception of interpersonal relationship skills, caring skills deployed in women’s jobs were either invisible or penalized. Additionally, the return to the caring skills of workers in low-wage occupations was also largely negative or absent. By contrast, men’s occupations, especially high-wage occupations for which care is an important part of the job, reported a wage premium.
Policy implications. Pietrykowski’s study finds that while skills are largely undervalued in women’s and low-wage occupations, they are rewarded in high-wage and men’s occupations. The results lend support to efforts to implement comparable worth and create policies that better align wages with caring skills, especially for low-wage service workers.