How to Use Labor Market Information to Explore Careers

What the Numbers Can Tell You About an Occupation

Business technology
John Lamb / Digital Vision / Getty Images

Your choice of a particular occupation should stem from the fact that it fits well with your personality type, interests, work-related values, and aptitude and that you find the job duties appealing. The educational and training requirements must also be attainable. But here's one more question to ask before going forward: Is it possible to build a career in this field? Find the answer by looking at labor market information.

What Is Labor Market Information?

Data about labor supply and demand, earnings, employment and unemployment statistics, job outlook, and demographics of the labor force make up what is known as labor market information. In the United States, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) of the Department of Labor, collects and analyzes statistical data about the labor market in this country. This independent statistical agency then disseminates it to Congress, other federal agencies, state and local governments, and the public. Many countries throughout the world have agencies similar to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

If you are in the exploration phase of the career planning process, labor market information is invaluable. Use it to find answers to many questions, including:

  • Which industries employ people in this occupation?
  • Where, geographically, will I be able to find a job?
  • Will there be opportunities in the field I am considering after I complete the required training or education?
  • How much will I earn?

Employment, Earnings, and Industries

How many people work in the occupation in which you are interested? Is it a reasonably large career field or a pretty small one? You can use the BLS's National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates to find this information for approximately 800 occupations. This resource also shows what industries employ people in this occupation. Find earnings here too.

Navigate to the National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates page, select the major occupational group that contains the one in which you are interested, and then choose the specific occupation. For example, if you want to see information about computer programmers, select "Computer and Mathematical Occupations" and then "Computer Programmers." 

That will take you to a page that displays a table containing employment estimates and mean hourly and annual wage estimates for the occupation. You will also see the percentile wage estimates, including the median salary (50th percentile) and 10th, 25th, 75th, and 90th percentiles. Percentile wage estimates provide an accurate look at the range of earnings in an occupation by showing the percentage of people earning less than a particular salary. For instance, if the annual wage of $24,780 is in the 10th percentile, it means 10 percent of people working in that occupation earn less than that.

This resource also presents information about employment by industry. You can see which industries employ the most people in general and in the occupation, and which pay the most.

Location, Location, Location

Are you are willing to relocate for your career or will you limit your job search to a particular city? Find out where to find the best employment opportunities for an occupation.

The aforementioned National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates includes data on which states and which metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas have the highest levels of employment for an occupation. Select the career you want to research by following the instructions above. Find tables that contain this information, as well as ones that tell you which states, metro areas, and non-metro areas have the highest wages.

What Does the Future Hold in Store?

The BLS predicts how the labor market will change between a base year and a target year that is 10 years away.  This data, called the outlook, is very informative as you plan your career. You will want to know your chances of finding a job after you complete ​educational requirements. After all, do you want to spend the time and money to prepare for an occupation if job opportunities are going to be scarce? Keep in mind the BLS does not account for recessions or other economic anomalies. The agency generally publishes employment projections every other year.

One way to access the BLS's employment projections is through the Selected Occupations Data tool. This database offers the option of searching by occupation or by education or training category. The output will include the following:

  • Total Employment in Base Year and Target Year
  • Employment Change Between Base Year and Target Year (as a number and a percentage)
  • Percentage of Workers in This Occupation Who Are Self-Employed
  • Job Openings in Target Year Due to Growth and Replacement Needs
  • Median Annual Wages
  • Most Significant Source of Post-Secondary Education or Training

The BLS also publishes lists of the fastest growing jobs, fastest growing industries, and occupations the agency predicts will add the most jobs between the base year and target year. While this information is helpful, don't choose a career solely because it is expected to experience rapid growth. Make sure it is right for you.

If geography is a crucial factor, also investigate what future opportunities will be where you plan to live. The BLS does not make employment projections on a state or local level. Individual state agencies make those predictions which are conveniently gathered on the website Projections Central: State Occupational Projections.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes two consumer-oriented resources that present labor statistics in a very user-friendly format. They are the Occupational Outlook Handbook and the Career Guide to Industries. While these publications don't cover all the occupations followed by BLS, they are extremely valuable and contain a wealth of information. O*Net Online is another great source of career information.

  • Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH): The BLS publishes this career encyclopedia which contains some of the information discussed on page 1, but for fewer occupations. You will find employment, earnings and projections data for about 250 occupations. The OOH also includes extensive descriptions and educational, training and experience requirements, as well as information about advancement opportunities. It is revised every two years.
  • Career Guide to Industries (CGI): This BLS publication is helpful if you want to learn about a particular industry and find out what occupations it employs. Find out about earnings, training requirements and advancement opportunities as well as job prospects and working conditions.
  • O*Net Online: This interactive tool for exploring occupations is sponsored by the US Department of Labor/Employment and Training Administration and developed by the National Center for O*NET (the Occupational Information Network) Development. It covers an extensive number of occupations and includes BLS data and detailed descriptions.